Friday, September 22, 2006
Director Paul Rachman retraces the history of punk rock.
AMERICAN HARDCORE. PHOTO: EDWARD COLVER
Paul Rachman’s American Hardcore is a salute to the U.S. underground punk scene that exploded in 1980. Inspired by Steven Blush’s 2001 book American Hardcore: A Tribal History (Feral House), Rachman’s blunt documentary was culled from over 120 hours of interview footage, as well as a stack of archival concert videos compiled from closets, shoeboxes and fan memorabilia stashes. The film also documents a phenomenon that Rachman and Blush observed firsthand, before the scene fizzled in the mid-’80s. “The scene burned out before anybody came to capitalize on it, so it’s very pure,” Blush says. “That’s what kids like about it today. People today don’t talk about the ’80s bands who sold a zillion records at that time, like Styx and Journey. They talk about the bands that sold 5,000 copies back in the day. Black Flag. Bad Brains. Minor Threat. People use the word edgy, or cutting edge...but these bands really were the cutting edge.
Mirroring the kinetic, road-warrior autonomy of its subjects, Rachman’s film acts as a vicarious cross-country tour in a beat-up van. We’re yanked from Washington, D.C., and booted into Texas. We’re ripped from New York and catapulted onto Huntington Beach, California. It’s a disorienting ride — by design. “Hardcore songs are fast, short and pinpoint-specific,” Rachman says of his film’s rough-and-tumble look. “The way the story is told, the editing is very much like that. Bam — idea and information. Then cut. Move forward. You need to be jostled through the story. I knew that the editing and the feel of the film had to reflect how it was to go through that scene. To be on tour, or whatever. Nothing quite works right. You’re living on kind of an edge. The jarring editing, fast movement and bold, to-the-point graphics were meant to enhance that feeling.”
Front and center during punk’s early-’80s heyday, Rachman filmed band footage in Boston while Blush promoted concerts in Washington, D.C. However, the mutual acquaintances eventually sought out greener pastures as their favorite sounds died out. Rachman moved to L.A. in the early ’90s, becoming a respected director of music videos (Pantera, Alice in Chains, Kiss, and Temple of the Dog were among his clients), short films (including 1992’s Memories with Joe Frank), and the feature movie Four Dogs Playing Poker (2000). Blush took on the New York City nightlife as a music promoter and author (his second book, .45 Dangerous Minds: The Most Intense Interviews From Seconds Magazine, features interviews with such fringe-dwelling antiheroes as Richard “Night Stalker” Ramirez, Ron “The Hedgehog” Jeremy and Anton LaVey).
The older, wiser friends were reacquainted on the streets of New York in 2001, however, eventually brainstorming the concept of American Hardcore as a film and beginning a four-year road trip of interviews and fact finding.
Fortunately, their subjects embraced the opportunity to reminisce. “Everybody was pretty forthcoming,” Rachman says. “Steven and I conducted the interviews, which were a lot more like conversations. Together with his six years of research on the book, and both having been part of the scene, we knew all these people at one time or another in the past. Reconnecting with them was kind of fun. The interviews were intimate enough that I was able to edit in the whole story through these people’s first person [accounts]. There’s no narrator. There are no explanations. It’s all told in their own words.”
American Hardcore is a jerky, staccato movement that conveys the forced, against-the-grain evolution of a homemade scene during an era of safe, big-hair conformity. “We wanted to keep the video look,” Rachman explains. “The movie had to look like bad ’80s video. There was no attempt to make this stuff look pretty, or tie everything together so that the film has a unique tonality. The hardcore scene was very erratic and spontaneous, which is reflected in the film editing. It’s messy. It was a very B&W world that happened very fast. It was very raw.”
It’s not surprising that the scene’s undiluted, white-hot energy burned itself out by 1986. But Rachman’s electric document of stateside hardcore punk is especially relevant in 2006. Hearing its practitioners describe the bland cultural rut that gave way to their steamrolling scene, one can’t help but think of today’s faceless pop-music limbo.
D.O.A.’s Joey “Shithead” Keithley appears early in American Hardcore, proclaiming the early ’80s “one of the worst periods in music possible. Disco was at its peak, and rock bands were like Foghat — crap.” Meanwhile, dreadlocked onetime Black Flagman and Circle Jerk Keith Morris denounces the era as a septic stew of shiny cars, feathered hair and wine coolers.
“It was Journey, Eagles and Fleetwood Mac,” he laments in the film. “Great bands for what they do, but when you’re hearing them over and over again, you’re gonna vomit, jump off the nearest cliff or throw yourself in front of an oncoming bus.”
Meanwhile, President Ronald Reagan was sworn into office on Jan. 20, 1981. Vic Bondi, of Chicago-based band Articles of Faith, was not smitten with the new administration. “The country goes into this really puerile ’50s fantasy,” he describes in the film, “where they’re dressed in cardigan sweaters. We were just like, ‘Fuck you.’”
The film makes clear that hardcore punk was a direct response to what its practitioners perceived as a wave of stagnant conformity that had taken over the country’s politics — and music. Turning their backs on a record industry seemingly more concerned with blow and babes than with anything authentic, the punks revolted through complete grassroots autonomy. Minor Threat’s Brian Baker describes low-budget, zero-flash packaging aesthetics as part of the scene’s do-it-yourself mentality. One scene provides a visual description of how to fold and manufacture a record jacket, a ritual that many hardcore groups were forced to master.
The scene also spawned commercially viable musicians who eventually went on to chart-topping success. Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea once played for L.A.-based Fear. Prior to his days with Guns N’ Roses and Velvet Revolver, another bass player, Duff McKagan, strummed for The Fartz in Seattle. Most interview subjects, however, now live humble, working-class existences. Some became accountants. Others own furniture stores. Many are unemployed, or struggling by with odd jobs. American Hardcore combines the movement’s obscure heroes and familiar faces, making for a dynamic talking-head tapestry.
“The criteria for the interviews were that you were in a band during those years, and were part of that scene,” Rachman says. “And if you weren’t part of that scene directly, you’re not in the movie. The people we chose for that were in legitimate hardcore bands in the early ’80s, when this scene kind of sprouted. Some brought this added perspective of looking back from the successful side, and it’s not so different from looking back from the side that many would perceive as ‘failures.’ It’s the same attitude, the same memory. That’s how good it was.”
Despite the scene’s antipathy toward status-driven competition, American Hardcore makes it clear that one band, the Bad Brains, dominated hardcore punk. Hailing from Washington, D.C., the Bad Brains combined jazz-fusion arrangements with punk ferocity, influencing nearly every group that crossed their path (including the Beastie Boys). Producer Jerry Williams praises the band’s “extreme precision,” calling their music “technically challenging.”
“Musically and performance-wise, they were tight and talented,” recalls Rachman of the Bad Brains. “They came out of the whole D.C. funk scene, then discovered punk rock and took it to a new level. In terms of technical proficiency, they were real musicians.”
A black foursome with Rastafarian leanings, the Bad Brains also subverted hardcore’s image as a refuge limited to angry young white men. Dreadlocked singer Paul “H.R.” Hudson proved a charismatic whirlwind of energy onstage, but his mania seemed the product of joyful, proactive enthusiasm, not nihilistic rage. “As a teenager,” H.R. explains in the film, “I was into acrobats.” He describes the euphoria of being onstage as “feelings of jubilee.”
“The bigger bands all had incredible frontmen,” confirms Rachman. “But H.R. of Bad Brains was above all others, by far. He really was this incredible inspiration to everybody on the scene. Everybody worshipped the Bad Brains. When that band came to town, you canceled everything, and you were sure to be at that show. It was like a drug — an addiction to this instant injection of adrenaline, that drives you for two hours at a live show.”
Like the volatile scene he documents in American Hardcore, Rachman’s completion of the film has been an exhausting haul. In January the movie premiered at the 2006 Sundance Film Festival, where Sony Pictures Classics picked it up for theatrical distribution this fall. “It’s been a long ride,” says Rachman with a chuckle. “It’s this crazy, hidden dream that you’re almost too embarrassed to mention that you’re thinking about. Then it happens. It’s good. And we were never asked to change one frame of the film, ever.”
No stranger to the film festival circuit — Rachman co-founded Park City’s Slamdance Film Festival in 1995 — he has a good explanation for why he didn’t show it at his festival. “We were able to take it to a more challenging audience. The Slamdance audience is the audience where everyone is already gonna love this movie. But at Sundance we were able to get some other people interested. The film is more than just a rock documentary. It really is a social commentary on a piece of musical American history. We were able to get that scope. I wasn’t a first-time filmmaker either, which is what Slamdance is all about.”
Blush is hopeful that a new generation of youth gone wild will find inspiration in the film, using hardcore’s DIY philosophy as fuel to launch rock and roll’s next musical revolution. “American Hardcore is a film about bands,” Blush explains, “but it’s really about being an alienated kid growing up in the Reagan era. About being a misfit, and finding your way. I think that’s universal. And as much as the film is for the old guys who were there, it is really a message to kids. To let them know that in a small way, you can change the world.”
Labels: Web Exclusives
Thursday, September 21, 2006
The team behind the award-winning documentary Boys of Baraka are back with a new film that focuses on Evangelical children training to be “soldiers in God’s Army.”
LEVI IN HEIDI EWING AND RACHEL GRADY’S JESUS CAMP.
Early on in Jesus Camp, Pentecostal minister Becky Fischer asks an auditorium full of children and parents: “Do you believe God can do anything?” A young mother grabs her child’s arm and raises it.
This is just one of many provocative moments that give Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing’s latest documentary its haunting power. As enthralling as the religious rallies it reveals, Jesus Camp is also never far from implications of a more incendiary nature. Freedom of religion guarantees parents’ rights to pass their beliefs on to their children, but at what point does religious training, laced with a political agenda, cross a line and become transgressive indoctrination? As Christian radio host Mike Papantonio, the voice of dissent in the film, says, “God has a special place for those that mess with our children.”
The film follows born-again Evangelical children to a boot-camp-style summer retreat in Devil’s Lake, North Dakota, where the first thing Pastor Becky does is pray over the microphone that she’ll need to deliver her “Kids on Fire” message. She suspects the devil is in the room, ready to cut the power. The filmmakers were given unprecedented access to moments like this. “We were looking for a good story about children and faith, where it comes from and how kids worship.” says Grady. “We found Becky. She told us it was prophesized that someone from the secular world would come make a film about her children’s ministry. And she loved Devon, the young preacher in Boys of Baraka.”
Jesus Camp focuses on three children: Levi, a charismatic aspiring preacher with a mullet haircut; Rachael, a convincing salesgirl for the Lord; and Tory, who loves heavy metal Christian rock but worries about her desire to “dance for the flesh.”
Eamonn Bowles of Magnolia Pictures, who is distributing the doc, has called Jesus Camp “a Rorschach test for how you feel about religion right now.” As Becky Fischer points out in the film, “Our enemies are arming their kids with hand grenades and bomb belts.” Marjoe, the 1972 documentary about a child evangelist, who, as an adult, admitted he was a fake, seems quaint in comparison to Jesus Camp. All he was after was money.
Beautifully shot and edited, at times unintentionally funny, Jesus Camp is ultimately as chilling as a horror film. One mom points out, “There are only two kinds of people in the world. Those that love Jesus, and those that don’t.” Or, as one child puts it, “Whenever I am around non-Christians it makes my spirit feel yucky.”
Ewing and Grady talked to Filmmaker about the process of finding their documentary’s narrative, the timeliness of such a film, and a surprising approach to marketing. The film is currently out in limited release.
JESUS CAMP DIRECTORS HEIDI EWING AND RACHEL GRADY.
Filmmaker: You were lucky to find such a generous guide into this world, with Becky Fischer.
Heidi Ewing: She’s a classic, quintessential, fantastic documentary film character. It’s people who are living in the margins on extreme missions, but still sort of touch you and make you think about your own life, who are the best characters.
Filmmaker: Were you a bit undercover, in that you had to hold your own beliefs close to the vest?
Rachel Grady: What’s interesting is that we didn’t keep our beliefs covert — they just never asked, which I believe is quite telling. But the bottom line is that we’re asking someone if we can go into their home, experience their lives. Really, who are we to judge them?
Ewing: And it’s not that we tried to be neutral or wimpy or avoid controversy. But you have to assume that people who see documentaries are intelligent. In the beginning the audience might be trying to figure out how we, the directors, feel, but by Act III they are engaged by whatever thought process this movie has taken them on.
Grady: And after showing the film to the adult subjects in the movie, it made them realize that the language they are using might be perceived as very aggressive, very political. They don’t see what they are doing as political. They’ve been in such a bubble that it didn’t even occur to them that by using the [rhetorical] framing [device] of the army and the military, people would take that literally. For me that’s the best-case scenario for any film, if it makes people question what they thought they knew.
Filmmaker: I saw an early cut of the film without Mike, the Christian talk show host, so I can see that he was needed to help your narrative. But I’ve heard some viewers say they didn’t think you needed him.
Grady: Without Mike we discovered that despite the fact that we had exciting scenes of religious revival that were dynamic to watch the film lacked conflict. The characters had no doubt, no inner conflict. That’s part of what being a born-again Christian is: there is a lack of uncertainty and the world is painted in black and white, which is unnerving to more secular people. So the film lacked conflict. Any story with no dissent, no conflict, winds up being flat.
Ewing: Also, one of our mission statements was, “What is the larger story we’re trying to tell?” Mike was able to voice an opinion of a large sector of Christians who don’t like the politicization of religion. We didn’t want to put all these [title] cards up explaining the entire backstory to this [culture]. We looked for a person who had those opinions and who could articulate them clearly. Mike was able to make connections from our kids and draw the lines to the larger movement as a whole. It was a device that was, admittedly, “inorganic” to the rest of the film, but it was an exciting challenge to weave his voice in — it was almost like directing a narrative.
Filmmaker: Do you think Mike’s presence will keep [religious audiences] from showing the film in their churches?
Grady: Absolutely not.
Ewing: I’m not sure. But I don’t think so.
Grady: Hopefully he’ll be somewhat of a provocateur to the Christian right. I think it works as a call-to-arms for them, to remind them that there are non-believers out there.
Filmmaker: The film continually shows innocent children’s toys, kids on swings, but also an ominous use of toys, with the religious comics, Christian combat videos and fetus dolls.
Grady: With the toys and swings, we wanted to remind everyone that these are kids, that these are indeed childhoods. But the way they hand out the little pink fetus dolls, it’s genius. It’s very effective. Kids are obsessed with their mothers. “This momma didn’t want her baby!”
Filmmaker: What about the charge that this training borders on child abuse, especially since these kids are home-schooled and don’t have access to other points of view?
Ewing: Two types of parents home-school: far-right conservatives and the far left, the hippies. Anyone in an extreme situation wants to remove his or her children from the mainstream. That is their right. But you can’t shelter somebody forever. Eventually they’re going to interact with the outside world, and the parents’ hope is that their children will stay strong and be for God.
Filmmaker: The kids cry a lot at the rallies. Were they crying from joy or fear?
Ewing: The crying is, to me, still a slight bit of mystery. Some kids are faking, some are just emotional, some are afraid, some say they feel the presence of God. It was very alarming to see, the first four, five, six times. But you do get desensitized to it, and these kids are clean and well fed and loved by their parents. Maybe it’s like the Stockholm syndrome, but I’m not sure I would call this child abuse.
Filmmaker: When one of the mothers says something ridiculous, you cut to a dog looking up startled, almost like an eyebrow raised. I thought, Is that Heidi and Rachel’s POV?
Grady: [laughs] You’re right.
Ewing: We have to be honest. You are right. It’s not like the dogs are the director’s voice necessarily, but we do have two scenes where we cut to dogs.
Grady: The dogs look into the camera like, “Huh? I just live here.”
Filmmaker: What about God’s POV? I thought that’s why you put the shots of wind in trees and grass waving.
Ewing: And the light coming through the window. We tried not to be cheesy and kitsch, yet there are certain iconic shots that are a shorthand language we had developed, like nature and wind. We tried not to overdo it. We got those iconic shots: the highways, very bland, flat, and the day was overcast. We had sunny shots; we didn’t choose them. The palette of the film is in the grays and the blues. It’s the everydayness of being Evangelical.
Grady: Also, it gets to be such a fever pitch that you need these shots as palate cleansers — brain or emotion cleansers.
Filmmaker: You also have roadside America shots that show ordinary life but feel a bit ominous.
Grady: We wanted to weave throughout the narrative a reminder that while you’re traveling through this America, the religious billboard [on the side of the road] really means something, that there is stuff happening in that church that maybe didn’t occur to you.
Filmmaker: What about the comparisons of the political side of the Jesus Camp training to the extremist Islamic madrassas? Is that a fair comparison?
Grady: It’s fair in the way that you can make a comparison of all fundamentalist religions worldwide. They have something in common: blind faith.
Ewing: I understand why it’s done, and I initially said something similar. But comparing the kids in Jesus Camp to the kids in madrassas is a little overstated, just like it irritates me when people bring up Hitler Youth. The difference is that Evangelicals do not need to strap on guns and bombs. We have something called a democracy, and these children are learning how to utilize the offerings of this democracy to get what they want. That’s what the movement’s doing. They’re not doing anything illegal. [They’re] flooding the FCC switchboards when they don’t like a television program, or flooding offices of congressmen when a vote’s coming up. Their leadership keeps abreast of every single hot-button issue, and that’s legal. These guys aren’t going to kill anybody, ever.
Filmmaker: Maybe this comparison is prompted by the scene at the beginning of the film with the sticks, the war paint, the martial arts, the “Army of God” talk.
Ewing: The Pentecostals told us they always use warlike language because it’s a war of the spirit and the kids like to get dressed up.
Grady: The little girl at the end of the movie says, “We’re being trained to be spiritual warriors.” We left that in. We wanted people, if they were looking for it, to understand the context.
Ewing: But there’s a splintering in the community now, big time. Even Ted Haggard’s church is saying, “We have to stop saying that global warming is not a problem.” The New York Times Magazine did a cover story about a preacher from a mega-church that refuses to talk about politics, will not endorse candidates from the pulpit, won’t use flags. There’s a lot of infighting right now, which is why this movie is so timely.
Filmmaker: You’re pretty invisible in the movie. Until you get to that mega-church and Haggard started questioning you. It’s the first resistance you receive in the film.
Ewing: Ted Haggard is a major leader of the political side of the Evangelical movement. We were not out for power players; we were out for foot soldiers. And then Haggard shows up and reminds us that there’s a greater agenda, that they’re on a mission. He says, “If we all vote, we’re going to sway every election.”
Filmmaker: So Eamonn Bowles is planning on taking this out to churches?
Ewing: Eamonn wants to bring the film to Christian strongholds before it hits L.A. or New York. Colorado Springs, Kansas City — they get the movie first. Magnolia is withholding the film from the secular world for one or two weeks. The Evangelicals have time to embrace or reject the film on their own terms. New York’s not going to be mad that Springfield had it first, whereas it might matter to the Christians if they don’t see it first. If New York and L.A. have gotten the movie and are criticizing the Evangelicals, that’s going to put them on the defense, and they’re not going to go see the film.
Filmmaker: And Magnolia’s hiring a second PR firm for the Christians?
Grady: Exactly. They hired a secular publicist and a Christian publicist, a company that did Billy Graham’s entire career as well as The Passion of the Christ. And Rick Warren, who’s mainstream, one of the most popular mega-church pastors, and Rob Parsley, who’s a very politicized Pentecostal pastor. So we have to wait and see. It’s in the realm of the possible that everyone will claim the film as his or her own. And we created the film in the hopes that could happen.
Labels: Web Exclusives