Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

"American Hardcore" harkens back to the time when punk rockers were actual punks, not whining, prefabricated MTV pretty boys. The forefathers of slick, relatively well-behaved acts such as Sum 41 and the All-American Rejects were apparently a bunch of nasty, lawbreaking dudes.

This documentary, which covers the 1980s underground hardcore punk scene, is designed in the style of the music it covers. It favors raw emotion and unfiltered expression over skill and nuance, feeling free to be sloppy so long as it makes its point. Look closely and you'll see the film is more than it first appears, which is a string of talking heads broken up by grainy home-video footage of bare-chested nobodies screaming incomprehensible lyrics to rile up moshing crowds.

The anti-establishment hardcore punk movement, which included the Cro-Mags, Bad Brains, Circle Jerks and various other bands hardly anyone has heard of, placed its painted fingernails on a pulse of waning social rage from the previous decade. Although the musicians lacked talent, their spirit and sound heavily inspired the likes of Rage Against the Machine and Godsmack. The Beastie Boys started off as a tribute to the Bad Brains, Henry Rollins broke through as the lead singer for the hardcore group Black Flag, and before Moby was into bizarre electronica, he rocked out in a brief stint for a hardcore band.

Even though hardcore gave birth to the "Straight Edge" teen lifestyle, which eschews sex, booze and drugs, a number of punks were apparently bad, bad dudes. In interviews, musicians joyfully recall raiding people's homes, assaulting sleeping female fans and living illegally on abandoned property. These were angry young men who lashed out at everything, and without music as an outlet, they might have ended up in jail.

Then again, maybe they belonged in jail anyway. Many of the old rockers rail about how badly they were treated by policemen in their day, but if half the stories about the way they conducted themselves are true, the cops were justified.

The documentary is either a shapeless mess or an astute commentary about its subject matter disguised as a shapeless mess. Director Paul Rachman, an industry veteran who made "Pantera: Cowboys From Hell" (1991) and worked as an editor on "Chappelle's Show," deserves the benefit of the doubt. It's unclear if the same is true of the thugs who made the music.


American Hardcore


Rated: R for pervasive language including sex and drug references.

Director: Paul Rachman.

Family call: Not for kids.

Running time: 98 minutes