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Thursday, October 9, 2014

Canadian Film Review: Hard Core Logo (1996)

* * * 1/2

Director: Bruce McDonald
Starring: Hugh Dillon, Callum Keith Rennie

It's a sad truth about the Canadian film industry that, unless you're in Toronto or Quebec, it's incredibly difficult for Canadian viewers to get hold of Canadian films. I don't just mean during their theatrical runs (though it is rare, at least where I live, for a Canadian film to play in any of the local theaters), but on video as well (even before all the video stores started shutting down). In that kind of climate, it's a minor miracle when a Canadian film ends up being as widely seen as Bruce McDonald's Hard Core Logo, which has attained status as a Canadian classic (voted in multiple polls as one of the best Canadian films ever made) and a cult following outside of Canada. It's easy to understand why, too. A mockumentary about the ill-fated reunion of the titular punk band, Hard Core Logo is an incredibly entertaining film and Canadian to its core.

The members of Hard Core Logo are Joe Dick (Hugh Dillon), the lead singer, Billy Talent (Callum Keith Rennie), the guitarist, John Oxenberger (John Pyper-Ferguson), bass player, and Pipefitter (Bernie Coulson), on drums. As is the case in many bands, there has long been tension between Joe and Billy as, to paraphrase a line from Almost Famous, the former is supposed to be the star and the face of the band and the latter is supposed to be the guitarist with mystique, popular in his own right but not in such a way as to eclipse the front man. Instead Billy has started to branch out and is on the verge of mainstream success when Joe reaches out with a plan to put Hard Core Logo back together to play a benefit show after punk legend Bucky Haight (Julian Richings) is shot. Following the success of the benefit show, Joe talks the rest of the band into a five city reunion tour of western Canada with filmmaker Bruce McDonald in tow to capture the endeavor for a documentary. So they get a van, load up their gear, and set off to recapture the past and, in Joe's case, to prove that despite the differences which broke them up in the first place, they should still be making music together.

Once they're out on the road, the cracks in the already shoddy facade begin to show. John (who, at one point, laments the fact that he's never attained a nickname which could double as a stage name, this despite the fact that his surname makes his eventual nickname obvious), who is schizophrenic, loses his medication and slowly starts to come undone, his journal entries and his increasingly withdrawn and nervous behavior signalling his internal distress. Billy finds out that being on the road with Hard Core Logo has cost him his opportunity to join the band Jenifur, which could have launched him into stardom. Joe's jealousy, not so much of Billy's success but of the fact that Billy wishes to play with another band, eats away at him. To top it off, the band stops in at Bucky's farm to pay him a visit and when Bucky emerges from his house uninjured, Joe is forced to admit that he fabricated the story about Bucky being shot in order to bring the band back together. Spending the night at Bucky's farm, the band and documentary crew drop acid and party and then head back out on the road the next morning to get to their final show which, given the way things are going, will almost certainly be their last show ever.

The very premise of Hard Core Logo invites comparisons to This is Spinal Tap (which is, in fact, name checked here during one of the band's conversations on the road), and though McDonald's film doesn't quite attain the transcendent satirical heights of Tap, it comes closer than any film ever has. The conceit of the fake documentary is by now so over used in film and television that its efficacy as a storytelling tool has become blunted, but even from the vantage point of 2014 Hard Core Logo remains a work that feels sharp, fresh, and above all authentic. Joe Dick and Billy Talent are fictional characters, but the film doesn't treat them that way and lists their names in the opening credits instead of those of Dillon and Rennie, and the two figures (and their fraught relationship) emerge fully formed and lived-in from the start. The story of Joe and Billy is not an unusual one - Joe is the band, its spirit incarnate, but lacks the discipline and desire to push the band to the next level, while Billy is a man of ambition who has grown tired of being held back by a band that would rather continue wallowing in the small time - but their conflict feels bracingly real and complex. There is history between Joe and Billy and it comes through not only in their interactions together, but in the moments when one or the other delivers a talking head to the camera.

As Joe and Billy, Dillon and Rennie deliver pitch perfect performances which make their characters indelible. However, after rewatching the film recently, I became convinced that its real stars are secretly Pyper-Ferguson and Coulson. As John, Pyper-Ferguson gives an intensely vulnerable performance which, even more than the turmoil between Joe and Billy, gives the film an emotional center. The Joe-Billy conflict, real though it may be, also feels like an adolescent thing, something rooted in the fact that neither man has any emotional maturity nor can they bring themselves to talk to each other about such base things as feelings. John's issues, meanwhile, are much more serious, and though the film maintains a light touch and uses John's unraveling to fold some dark humor into the story, it's still a bit heartbreaking to see how he ends up at the end of the tour. Coulson, meanwhile, provides the film with its most overt comic relief and his performance as the ultra-dudeish Pipefitter is extremely relaxed and natural feeling. Of all the guys in the van, Pipefitter is the only one that you'd actually want to take an extended trip with because he doesn't get hung up on any drama; everything glances off of him like water off a duck's back.

Almost twenty years, one aborted sequel which would be rewritten to become the wonderful Tracy Wright and Molly Parker-starring Trigger, and one less than well-received official sequel in the form of Hard Core Logo 2 later, Hard Core Logo remains an endlessly entertaining film that doesn't get stale even after multiple viewings. It's a film that more than lives up to its reputation as one of Canada's best ever.

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