An in-depth look at the showtime documentary telling the story of Agnostic Front.
The hardcore scene is no stranger to patting itself on the back for its legacy and cultural resilience, and with good reason. Since it’s inception, the genre has provided catharsis, self-determination and a conduit for raw expression for disenfranchised peoples hailing from the most challenging walks of life imaginable. It is of logical consequence that we should put rose tinted glasses on once in a while, and look through the old polaroid collection; be that in the form of a reunion tour, a benefit show, or in the case of Agnostic Front – an act fast approaching their 30th birthday – a documentary.
The story of Agnostic Front is significant in that it broadly represents the experiences held by people in hardcore and punk culture. Born into working-class backgrounds in the lower east side during New York’s height of gang violence and poverty. Beset by media sensationalism, drug addiction, homelessness, prison sentences and abusive family backgrounds; the circumstances which created Agnostic Front are the ideal point for exploring the common experiences and values of hardcore kids, not just in New York, but across the world. It feels like it should almost write itself.
The viewer is greeted with sepia-tinged, artistically recreated shots of a graffiti-laden squat, setting the scene in the lower east side of NY, early 1980’s. We see an actor fiddling with the aerial of a television set. Behind them, tell-tale hints of what to expect: ‘Fuck authority’ is scrawled across the backdrop, along with the obligatory shout-outs to bands and figures involved in the early NYHC scene. The TV suddenly cuts from static to a news report on slam dancing, contrasting archetypal sensationalist reporting with the rawness of the culture. Cutaway to artistically rendered live footage of Agnostic Front to the tune of ‘Victim in Pain’ while the credits roll, before the viewer is shown a definition of the word Godfather; ‘A man who is influential or pioneering in a movement or organization.’ Clear in the intent of the documentary is to present Vinnie ‘Stigma’ Capuccio and Roger Miret as both relatable, everyman figures, while also positioning them in the godfather role implicit in the title. We are shown interviews with both doing all the things we’d expect from members of a pioneering punk act; rifling through zines and old t-shirts/posters, interviews held in their homes/places of work, or walking through New York and regaling the viewer with stories of coming of age in the area during the 70’s/80’s.
While this does a lot to humanize these two figures and implicitly identify context behind the band’s message (Vinnie’s frustration at the gentrification of his hometown is very telling), after nearly 30 minutes of Vinnie walking places and meeting and greeting people the viewer would be forgiven for feeling a little overloaded by personal context, and starved of cultural context. In the absence of any of the other members of the band receiving any airtime, it begins to feel more like a personal biopic, lauding upon the brash, almost performative personality of Vinnie, while lamenting the pressures on the shoulders of the quieter, more collected Roger. Even when we do eventually hear from Mike Gallo, bassist of 19 years, his airtime is dedicated solely to describing the two as father figures and mentors. The intentions of director Ian McFarland to hold up a mirror to the audience, revealing themselves through the personalities of these two figures and, in turn, their lasting influence is something of an inference, given no real recognition of the culture they have contributed to. At this early stage in the documentary, it creates a vacuum of understanding rather than celebrating the significance of the band’s legacy.
Almost as if responding to these thoughts, the gears shift towards casting light on the band’s history. Similarly to the defining of the word Godfather at the beginning, the term ‘agnostic’ is defined as desire to question one’s surroundings. Undeniably, dissatisfaction with rigid authority, status quo and hollow values is a hugely common theme amongst members of the hardcore and punk scene, and the culture has always functioned to amplify the voices of those speaking against them. Nowhere in the world are there clearer examples of both injustice and resistance than New York; the statue of liberty overlooking streets historically defined by segregated housing and social inequality, at once welcoming and rejecting the disadvantaged, yet also bearing witness to the self-organization and determination which forged enduring communities within its furnace.
It’s at this point that the true potential of ‘Godfathers…’ is tapped into. Segments of footage from the early 1980’s hardcore scene play across the screen, showing interviews not just with younger incarnations of Agnostic Front, but with other members of the scene; kids who made zines, people from other bands, attendees, all wearing the same expression of undiluted aggression and youthful optimism. To any veteran of any hardcore scene, this will be deeply relatable – watching these people talking in impassioned tones about the culture they love feels like a conversation with any hardcore kid today anywhere I go. Common themes of the scene as a place which encourages participation, creativity, and critical thinking are enthusiastically echoed by everyone who gets in front of a camera, and the roots of the culture are revealed in abundant and timeless clarity. Moments like this remind the viewer not only that this is a story which needs to be told, but one that is still being written today. The true value of the culture is revealed through the sense of passion among the participants, which reacts paradoxically with presenting Roger and Vinnie as ‘Godfathers’ of the scene, but strikes a bold chord nonetheless, and serves as a better window, both into the past and present, than has been presented thus far.
Earnestly and oft-repeated in discourses surrounding the hardcore scene are the words ‘unity’ and ‘togetherness’; the notion that hardcore is a group of like-minded individuals, unified by common values and driven towards a singular purpose. ‘Godfathers…’ is no exception, with grandiose statements about changing the world and functioning outside of society being brandished like picket signs. This message raises some contention among members of the hardcore community from my experience, with some finding their sense of direction and purpose therein, drawing momentum from the idea that DIY culture can impact the individual and also wider society, even in some small way. Others see in these words a contrived, unrealistic sense of romanticism, and are disenfranchised with the idea that the culture must be a vehicle for pre-ordained agendas, with the members all marching forward as a homogenous group, deaf to dissenting voices and experiences, or internal accountability.
To deny the division and inequality within underground cultures would not be an honest reflection of the multitudes of experiences within, but equally to overlook the evolution of the culture – the degree to which values of honesty and personal integrity have formed foundations which are just starting to allow the building of more honest representation and accountability – feels inaccurate. The legacy of the culture is its ability to endure, learn and evolve, which is something I was hopeful to see the latter part of the documentary to explore; to truly render explicit the influence of the eponymous godfathers.
Sadly, it does not. No sooner has a window into the cultural context been opened, it is snapped shut and the viewer is returned to a day-in-the-life style biopic following Vinnie and Roger. A disproportionate amount of screen-time is given to Vinnie walking, shaking hands and talking about playing stickball. Roger shows a much more humble and vulnerable side. He is quick to confirm that, contrary to the titular implication, “Agnostic Front did not create the New York hardcore scene. This scene was created by all my friends.” The honesty in his speech says more in a short amount of time than anything brought forward by Vinnie. At times, this serves to reinforce the key themes put forward by the documentary of hardcore as a symbol of freedom and escapism from the hardships of life; Roger recalling the abuse he, his brothers and mother suffered at the hands of his stepfather, and how he used hardcore as a means to get Freddie out of that environment is a particularly poignant example of this.
Similarly, he touches upon his experience as an immigrant and craving a sense of ‘belonging’, attributing the realisation of this to the friendships and bonds he formed within the hardcore scene, but these are fleeting moments of dialogue, which cut uncomfortably across to montages of live footage, then across to Vinnie being given birthday cakes without any semblance of order or narrative. This cutaway style of editing serves to make the previous segment, which revolved heavily around providing context of the early NYHC scene, seem more like something crowbarred in for the sake of having paid dues, rather than a legitimate means of illustrating that Agnostic Front (Seemingly only Roger and Vinnie) are godfathers of the culture. Much of this seems to rely on the viewer having an intimate knowledge of the New York hardcore scene already, with implication and inference tracing loosely between the gaps in the narrative. Viewers could be forgiven for wondering what these men are meant to be godfathers of.
There is no mention of how the scene grew and developed past the grainy VHS footage presented; no discussion of how the culture gave rise to bands such as Gorilla Biscuits, Biohazard, All Out War, Irate, Breakdown, or the multitude of bands they in turn influenced. There is no reference to the vibrant, – still very much alive – NYHC scene of today, and there’s a historically blinkered view of the early days, even with the plethora of footage presented in the middle section of the documentary (Raymond ‘Raybeez’ Barbieri, for example, is not acknowledged as a member of WarZone, arguably just as deserving of mention). In fact, aside from the obligatory mention of Freddie Madball, there are hardly any explicit mentions of any other bands at all, leaving Agnostic Front and their influence hanging in a temporal void. Maybe it is taken as read that all of this is knowledge that a viewer will already have, but given the high level of exposure this documentary is receiving, learned fans and those with new interest alike are likely to be left with more questions unanswered than resolved.
The opening scene is really indicative of the overarching impression I am left with from Godfathers of Hardcore; A stylistic retelling of the hard times which influenced the birth of a culture. The writing on the walls, hints and nods toward a context that really needed to be made apparent from the get-go. The time spent following the lives of these two men at the expense even of the band and culture in question speaks of a creative decision to present them in a paradoxical light; Everymen and, simultaneously, pioneers, but their influence is never rendered explicit. The question on this reviewers mind is not ‘Are Agnostic Front an important part of NYHC history?’, but ‘Why has the director made such a point of suggesting they are while also not providing any supporting evidence?’ The most compelling moments end up being the interviews with people who are not even part of band, but just kids who were part of the scene.
It’s only in the last 5 minutes we see an interview with an Agnostic Front fan, who speaks passionately of the honesty in their music. An honesty which questions authority and rejects status, and has sadly been lost in the translation of a loosely-defined narrative. And this brings forth the question; In a culture where the key value presented is renouncing image in favour of honest expression, and a shift of focus towards togetherness and collective cohesion, how relevant is the personal glory of being deemed a Godfather?
The Godfathers Of Hardcore will be available digitally 20th April. More info here.
Words: Alex Rover