Agnostic Front were born in a war zone, and their music sounded like it. From its early-Eighties inception, the band embodied the violence, drugs and tragedy surrounding the New York hardcore scene it helped spawn on the city’s derelict Lower East Side. It was unclear if the band would survive to play another show – let alone evolve into one of the most unexpectedly influential groups of their era, still playing packed shows around the world to this day. That paradox lies at the heart of a visceral new documentary about the group, The Godfathers of Hardcore.
Directed by Ian McFarland – and receiving its theatrical premiere Saturday in New York as part of the 2017 DOC NYC film festival – Godfathers trains an unflinching lens on this band’s rise, fall, and unlikely rebirth. The doc acts as a dynamic, crucial companion piece to American Hardcore, The Decline of Western Civilization and other films chronicling the evolution of Eighties punk.
The New York hardcore scene provided a home for the innovative thrash of the Bad Brains and even the young, loud, and snotty punk of the Beastie Boys. But with their leather-and-spikes tough-guy vibe, provocative embrace of skinhead Oi! music and political U.K. acts like Discharge, and the incendiary presence of frontman Roger Miret, Agnostic Front carved out their own lane. The band would become forefathers to the Nineties “street punk” explosion led by Rancid and the Casualties, and Miret & Co.’s forward-thinking (and controversial) embrace of heavy-metal aesthetics would also prove inspirational to bands like Hatebreed, Killswitch Engage and Metallica.
But as captured in McFarland’s film, what’s most impressive about the band is their surprising longevity and relevance. “I’m 60 years old and I got a mohawk,” exclaims Agnostic Front’s original guitarist Vinnie Stigma, primping before a recent concert, in one of the film’s many hilarious yet heartfelt moments.
At the center of The Godfathers of Hardcore is the perennial bond between the band’s co-founders Stigma and Miret. “There’s nothin’ that could ever come between us,” Stigma states to the camera, and that’s clear from how McFarland depicts the primal relationship between the pair. Stigma was born and raised on a mafia-infested street in New York’s East Village, and still lives in the same apartment. Miret, on the other hand, escaped Castro’s Cuba to emigrate to the Eastern Seaboard, where he was raised in an abusive and broken home.
What Godfathers powerfully reminds even Agnostic Front’s biggest fans is what a through-and-through rock star Miret remains, even with a middle-age gut. With his movie-star looks and fearsome scream, Miret started as New York hardcore’s poster boy – its very own Chris Cornell, an artist just as pretty and tortured. As such, Miret would do hard time for drug dealing in the late Eighties – an experience that, as the film shows, only strengthened his resolve and set the stage for his dramatic Nineties comeback.
The Godfathers of Hardcore takes us from Agnostic Front’s beginnings amid the junkies, street gangs and derelicts inhabiting New York’s Lower East Side in the early Eighties right up today, as the band heralds its third decade with a new world tour. Some elements of the history could be more developed, such as the controversy over whether or not Agnostic Front endorsed racist views in their songs. (Godfathers demonstrably sets the record straight that Agnostic Front were the farthest thing from being Nazi punks, but considering the topic’s relevance today, that part of the film could’ve gone deeper.) And that Steve Martin – the PR guru to Radiohead, Paul McCartney, Beastie Boys, Jack White, U2, Arcade Fire and the late David Bowie – did a two-year stint with the band in the late Eighties goes curiously unmentioned.
But ultimately, The Godfathers of Hardcore does two things brilliantly: It vividly depicts how Stigma, Miret and their band members and New York hardcore co-conspirators were forced to forge their own surrogate family. At the same time, it demonstrates what happens when punks rise up from the gutter as they age and start conventional middle-class families. (The scenes of Miret with his children and wife in their suburban Arizona home are among the film’s most affecting moments.)
At the core of the film, though, are Agnostic Front’s blazing, intensely emotional performances. Showing Miret and Stigma still hitting the road year after year, Godfathers proves in entertaining yet profound fashion that true punks remain hardcore even as they age. As Stigma himself notes in one scene, “Once you’re in… you can’t get out.”