What happens to veteran punk rockers as they approach retirement age? According to Ian McFarland’s slight but warm-hearted documentary The Godfathers of Hardcore, they just keep slogging away. Formed in 1980, Agnostic Front became key players on New York’s hardcore underground, part of the same broader scene that helped launch artists like Bad Brains, Beastie Boys and Moby. But while their former peers evolved musically and embraced mainstream success, these heavily tattooed street-punk purists stayed true to their bellowing, bludgeoning, unpolished roots. Consequently, the group never progressed beyond cult fame, soldiering on stoically through four decades of lineup changes, temporary splits and more drummers than Spinal Tap.
For the uninitiated, Godfathers of Hardcore contains too little context about the feverish underground rock subculture that spawned Agnostic Front. That said, McFarland’s doc is clearly a labor of love, and much of the vintage concert footage it contains is undeniably exciting. Having premiered on the festival circuit last year to generally positive reviews, this fan-friendly film is currently screening on Showtime, with a home entertainment release to follow.
Instead of attempting a conventional bio-doc chronology, McFarland concentrates on the current activities of the band’s two longest-serving core members, guitarist Vinnie “Stigma” Capuccio and singer Roger Miret. A live-wire 60-year-old with a bristly punk mohawk, Capuccio is the most immediately cinematic of the duo, with a thick Noo Yoik accent and a ballsy attitude to match. If this was a Martin Scorsese movie, he would be played by Joe Pesci.
Capuccio still lives in a modest apartment in the same Little Italy building where he was raised. Disgruntled by New York City’s post-Giuliani gentrification, he yearns nostalgically for his sleazy childhood neighborhood of drugs, gangs and mobsters. Surveying the downtown Manhattan skyline, Capuccio disdainfully points out the nearby penthouses of wealthy celebrity incomers like Patrick Stewart, Moby and David Bowie. This scene is an oddly clumsy inclusion, given that Bowie died in 2016 and Moby relocated to Los Angeles a decade ago.
At 54, Miret is the mellower of the duo, but his backstory is richer. Born in Castro’s Cuba before emigrating to the U.S. as a child, he grew up speaking Spanish as his first language — “your classic American immigrant story,” he calls it. After a stormy upbringing and a spell behind bars for drug offenses, he is now a dedicated family man, living in suburban Arizona with his wife and two young kids. The stark lifestyle contrast between these two old punk warhorses, who maintain a deep brotherly bond despite their wildly divergent journeys, gives the film its texture. But it is Miret’s fierce devotion to his family, complicated by health worries following a recent heart attack, that supply the main emotional charge.
Splicing contemporary interview and concert footage with archive video material, mostly drawn from the band’s thrillingly chaotic early live performances, Godfathers of Hardcore is an unashamedly personal portrait. This is both a strength and a weakness. As a former punk musician who has made several promo videos for Agnostic Front, McFarland clearly has a relationship of trust with his subjects. This friendship earns him a rare level of close-up access, but it also compromises any journalistic rigor the doc might have had. Casual fans expecting a forensic assessment of the band’s long history, political views or connections with the wider hardcore scene will be disappointed by this narrow focus.
Anti-establishment politics was always a key element of the hardcore punk scene, which blossomed during the Reagan years, attracting extremists on both left and right. In their youth, Agnostic Front were associated with racist skinhead culture (unfairly) and made some apparently pro-Republican, anti-welfare statements. And yet, strangely, McFarland largely ignores the band’s political beliefs beyond a fuzzy manifesto of “questioning authority, questioning society, just questioning everything.” Such nebulous platitudes could equally apply to Lady Gaga or Maroon 5.
The film also fails to explore some fascinating subplots, such as Capuccio’s family connections to the Mafia, which only merit a teasingly brief mention. Miret’s painful family history gets more airtime. But even here, McFarland glosses over some juicy details, including a dramatic incident in which the singer’s mother shot his abusive stepfather — not fatally, however. Miret’s two-year spell in prison is also too thinly explained. A more detached, determined director would have illuminated these episodes more fully.
In keeping with the no-frills punk aesthetic, McFarland films the band in an unobtrusive and unshowy style. That said, the contemporary material is handsomely shot and smoothly edited, with an agreeably dreamy tone and some quietly poetic visual flourishes. Surprisingly, Aaron Drake’s prominently deployed electronic score is plaintive and subtle, the polar opposite of the ear-bashing, chest-thumping, testosterone-pumped genre that the doc notionally celebrates.
The Godfathers of Hardcore ends with Miret and Capuccio back on tour, still playing to healthy crowds of mostly white, brawny, middle-aged men. Punk’s not dead, it just goes to bed earlier these days. It is genuinely touching to see how McFarland so obviously adores Agnostic Front and their raucous old-school racket, but he never quite persuades us why we should, too.
Production company: McFarland & Pecci Films
Cast: Roger Miret, Vinnie Stigma, Emily Miret
Director: Ian McFarland
Producers: Ian McFarland, Skip Williamson
Cinematographer: Anthony Jarvis
Editor: Ian McFarland
Music: Aaron Drake