Monday, February 9, 2009

Hard Core Logo

“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 adaptation Vancouver writer Michael Turner’s book about 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. They all pile into a beat-up van and travel across 4,000 kilometers on a bar tour of Calgary, Regina, Winnipeg, and Edmonton. 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 reaches 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 1970s and early 1980s and so he was drawn to Turner’s book about aging musicians. In 1994, a friend gave McDonald a copy of the book which consisted of a collage of song lyrics, diary entries and contract riders. 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.” The director wanted to be true to the “sense of being 35 and having to decide whether to keep going or quit and get a day job.”

McDonald 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!” Initially, McDonald and novice screenwriter Noel Baker were not sure how to adapt the book and finally settled on making a mockumentary.

What McDonald was not interested in making was a Canadian version of Spinal Tap. He even jokingly referred to his film as “Spinal Tap’s mean little brother.” Furthermore, he said, “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 a tough time casting the role and had to persuade Dillon to do the film. “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 “couldn’t find anyone who wasn’t posing or doing some fake-o rock-guy shtick.” He had used musicians in his before and Dillon had a small role in Dance Me Outside. However, McDonald wasn’t sure how Dillon would work with actors and so he consulted with Callum Keith Rennie. The actor and the musician got along famously. 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.”

Armed with a $1.1 million budget, McDonald shot the bulk of the film in Vancouver over three weeks in November 1995 with additional footage shot in southern Alberta. As McDonald was about to start principal photography, the Ontario Film Development Corp. froze funding as part of the government’s restraint program. The producers quickly looked for new investors and, at one point, discussed rewriting the film to make it about a Toronto band heading east to the Maritimes. McDonald quickly nixed the idea. Fortunately, British Columbia Film agreed to provide financing on the condition that he hire a local producer and crew. The landscape of western Canada also played an important role and McDonald realized “what a nightmare it is for any Canadian band that tries to tour the West and tries to deal with the huge distances between places.” Post-production was finished the weekend before its first screening.
McDonald keeps the film together with his solid direction. He has an excellent sense of pacing — the film 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 had its world premiere at the 49th Cannes Film Festival with three screenings. McDonald remembers, “Cannes was very humbling. You’re in the same arena as Bernardo Bertolucci and Czechoslovakian pornographers. It’s such a bizarre spectrum.” After screening at the Venice Film Festival, the film had its Canadian premiere on September 20, 1996 at Sudbury’s Cinefest and was then shown at the Vancouver International Film Festival on October 10 before being released across Canada eight days later. It was offered the opening spot in the Perspective Canada series at the Toronto International Festival with two screenings. The film’s distributors felt that the slot might “ghetto-ize” it and that McDonald had outgrown the Perspective Canada spot. They wanted only one screening in a 300-theater with a “special attraction” billing but the Festival organizers did not agree and the film was not shown there.

Hard Core Logo was well-received by Canadian film critics. In his review for the Montreal Gazette, John Griffin praised the film as a “masterful exercise in edgy virtuoso film craft, subversive propaganda and exhilarating entertainment.” The Toronto Sun’s Bruce Kirkland praised the cast: “They’re all so convincing it is impossible to believe they’re not all the real thing.” In his review for the Toronto Star, Bruce Kirkland wrote, “Screenwriter Noel S. Baker has provided some of the funniest and deftest writing Canadian moviemaking has heard in years. But it can’t hide the bitter-sweetness just below the surface.” The Globe and Mail’s Liam Lacey gave the film a mixed review: “Though the jumpy, parodic, disruptive style suits rock music, the same techniques prevent viewers from investing deeply in the characters and the story. The ride is fun, but it doesn’t quite reach a destination.”
At the Vancouver International Film Festival, Hard Core Logo received the $40,000 CITY-TV award for Best Canadian Film and Noel Baker won the Rogers prize for Best Canadian Screenplay. The film went on to be nominated for six Genie Awards (the Canadian version of the Academy Awards), including Best Picture and Director but only won for Best Original Song for “Who the Hell You Think You Are?” 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.

If you decide to get this film on DVD, avoid the crappy, bare bones edition on and instead get the Special Edition here or go to Trust me, it's worth it. The SE has a great audio commentary with McDonald, Dillon and Baker along with music vids.


Dafoe, Chris. “McDonald’s White-Line Fever.” Globe & Mail. October 10, 1996.

Goddard, Peter. “Stylish Punk Flick Would Have Energized Fest.” Toronto Star. September 16, 1996.

MacInnis, Craig. “McDonald Brings Party-Hearty Style to Cannes.” The Montreal Gazette. May 16, 1996.

“McDonald Film Wins 2 Awards.” Globe & Mail. October 22, 1996.

Salem, Rob. “Rock in a Hard Place.” Toronto Star. October 18, 1996.


  1. I hate to say it, but I've never seen any of these movies you mentioned here. You've definitely got my interest peaked though.

  2. It's a cool film and well worth tracking down. Sadly, unless you are Atom Egoyan or David Cronenberg, it is hard for Canadian filmmakers to break out of their own country. HARD CORE LOGO is probably McDonald's best known, though as Tarantino distributed in the U.S.