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Cinematic Pleasures: Hard Core Logo

by j.d. lafrance

"People don't want your sounds, they just want to use you." - Bucky Haight

This Is Spinal Tap (1984) is generally regarded as the quintessential rock 'n' roll mockumentary - a hilarious look at the inept trials and tribulations of a heavy metal band. On the opposite end of the spectrum is Hard Core Logo (1996), a no frills, balls-to-the-wall look at a fictitious Canadian punk rock band. Where Tap is a funny satire, Logo has a much darker undercurrent that gives it an unpredictable edge.

Retired for some years, legendary Canadian punk rock band, Hard Core Logo reunites for a one-off benefit concert in honor their mentor, Bucky Haight (Julian Richings), who supposedly had both legs amputated after being shot by a crazy fan. The gig goes so well that the band's charismatic lead singer, Joe Dick (Hugh Dillon), convinces everyone to go on a mini-tour across Western Canada with a documentary crew tagging along for the ride. It takes no time at all for all the old gripes and grudges to resurface, most significantly, the fact that lead guitarist, Billy Tallent (Callum Keith Rennie), is close to signing on with Jenifur, an MTV-friendly band that has made it to the cover of Spin magazine. This does not sit too well with Joe who comes from the old school of punk rock that refuses to sell-out to major labels or appear in glossy corporate magazines. As the tour progresses, the friction between the band members becomes more palpable until it achieves a critical mass.

Hard Core Logo is the third film in Bruce McDonald's informal rock 'n' roll road movie trilogy that started with Roadkill (1989) and Highway 61 (1991). The filmmaker grew up in the Vancouver punk rock scene in the late '70s and early '80s and so he was drawn to Michael Turner's book about aging musicians. As McDonald commented in an interview, "what I thought was really interesting is where it is 15 years later, and what are these guys doing now." He had just come off the critically acclaimed Dance Me Outside (1995) and his friends warned him not to repeat himself with another road movie. However, McDonald did not see Logo as a repeat of previous films. "On the other films, they (the anti-heroes of Roadkill and Highway 61) go down the road and meet a nutty person and things happened. Here you're with the same people throughout - and they are the nutty people!"

What he was not interested in making was a Canadian version of Spinal Tap. "We were not setting out to make a parody or satire. This is more of a true documentary voice - these are real people." There is a certain raw vibe that permeates Logo and this is perfect for its rough around the edges subject matter.

The unrefined attitude is due in large part to the presence of Hugh Dillon as Joe Dick. McDonald had to persuade Dillon to do the movie. "He was going 'Wow, what if the movie is shit, then I'd lose all my fans from the band, I'd lose all my credibility!'" The director auditioned 200 actors for the role but kept coming back to the musician. Not a professional actor but rather lead singer of the Canadian blues punk bank, The Headstones, Dillon's lack of formal training gives his performance a certain unpredictability that is perfect for his character. Dillon remembers, "as soon as he gave me freedom to make the screenplay more believable, I became interested. Bruce allowed me creative input and that's what made it a special piece for me." Dillon obviously drew a lot on his own real life experiences of being in a band and this makes everything he says and does that much more believable.

The interplay between the rest of the band is also very well done. Callum Keith Rennie plays the gifted, low key guitarist who has clearly surpassed his bandmates, Bernie Coulson is the crazy drummer who seems clueless but knows what to do when it counts, and finally John Pyper-Ferguson is the terminally burnt out bass player whose road diary provides the film's voice-over narration. The way these guys joke and argue with each other-like adults who refuse to grow-up - is so good that it feels like they have really been in a band together for many years. This was important for McDonald who wanted to realistically portray the dynamics of being in a band. "It's a grueling career, struggling to keep a band together. A band's a bit like a family-you can treat each other very badly and get away it. And because of those magical moments on stage, the band goes on and on."

McDonald keeps the film together with his solid direction. He has an excellent sense of pacing - the movie never gets boring - and he instinctively knows that the essence of any good rock 'n' roll movie is, as he puts it, "extremely loud music and cool shots." Cinematographer Danny Nowak uses the shaky, hand-held camerawork that documentaries are known for and he also shoots the band in cool slow motion shots that emphasizes their iconic status.

Hard Core Logo screened at the Cannes Film Festival. McDonald remembers, "Cannes was very humbling. You're in the same arena as Bernardo Bertolucci and Czechoslovakian pornographers. It's such a bizarre spectrum." The film went on to be nominated for six Genie Awards (the Canadian version of the Academy Awards), including Best Picture and Director. While something of a minor sensation in Canada, McDonald's films have been largely ignored in the United States, due mostly to lack of proper distribution. This changed somewhat with Logo when Quentin Tarantino saw it a film festival and liked it so much that he bought the U.S. distribution rights under his Rolling Thunder vanity label and even toyed with casting Dillon in Jackie Brown (1997).

Along with the aforementioned Spinal Tap and Cameron Crowe's Almost Famous (2000), Hard Core Logo is one of the best fictitious rock 'n' roll movies ever made. It has a genuine appreciation for music and an acute knowledge of the conventions and clichés of the genre. Like Spinal Tap, McDonald's film is not afraid to make fun of these conventions and like Almost Famous, there is an authenticity to how the band is portrayed and the music they make.

Issue 27, October 2004

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