Though American Hardcore doesn't achieve a cogent and authoritative history, it succeeds in giving the general impression of the early-'80s hardcore punk scene. Director Paul Rachman covers a lot of ground, first establishing the musical movement's profound, profane hatred of the mainstream, especially authority figures like politicians, police, and parents. The hyperspeed, three-chord anti-melodies of bands like Bad Brains, Black Flag, and the Circle Jerks inspired a chaotic storm of art and commerce, defined by a new sound, grassroots distribution, and radical disregard for the niceties of public performance.
Rachman gets a wide array of thoughtful talking-head interviews with subjects like Ian MacKaye of Minor Threat and Henry Rollins of Black Flag. The film's structure is scattershot, but the stories still have the power to surprise (like Mike Patton's account of Jack Gresham bartering a pipe bomb for entry to a concert). Witnesses recount cop horror stories and touch on the yet darker side of the scene's escape from the suburbs: violence and a presumable periphery of misogyny and substance abuse. Circle Jerk Zander Schloss doesn't turn up until the film's final moment, and only then to toll a sarcastic death knell.
In his most effective tack, the director skillfully weaves aging elements to bring chaotic concerts back to life; wall-to-wall punk music keeps the film pulsing. Screenwriter Steven Blush's book American Hardcore: A Tribal History and his assertion that the vapid American '80s—under Ronald Reagan's watch—threatened to regress into '50s conservatism. The problem, such as it is, is that the material proves to be enough for a film of twice the length. What's here is tantalizing but hardly thorough.