Our SS17 campaign pays homage to the legacy of Grunge. After all, we have a lot in common with the genre. Like Dr. Martens, Grunge is unapologetically itself. Its fuzzy, Seattle-based post-punk sound is simple and utilitarian, yet rallied a generation of latchkey kids ready to rebel against their collective indifference and boredom. So that’s why we weren’t surprised when it quickly became a global cultural movement, cascading into fashion (remember this 1992 spread in American Vogue?) and eventually, cinema. To round out our series about Grunge’s cultural influence, Sub Pop Records contributor Tom Ojendyk reports on Grunge’s journey onto the silver screen — from soundtracks to storylines.
THE HOLLYWOOD BANDWAGON
When Hollywood notices a trend, it’s only a matter of time before it ends up on the big screen. Much like the 50s had Elvis movies, the 70s had Saturday Night Fever, and the 80’s had Breakin’, the 90s had its fair share of grungy movie moments. It wasn’t just movies about angst-ridden teenager slackers doing nothing in college towns, either (although there were plenty of those). Hollywood heartthrobs stopped washing their hair and doing laundry, and filmgoers began rocking out to grunge soundtracks. For the most part, grunge merely served as a backdrop for otherwise standard movie fare, but plenty of documentaries did a respectable job telling the grunge story.
BELIEVE THE HYPE: DOCUMENTARIES
The most infamous grunge music documentary was Doug Pray’s 1996 movie, Hype — also the name of a short-lived Seattle monthly alternative music newspaper. Hype told the story of the late 80s/early 90s northwest music scenes, including cool live footage of and interviews with bands such as Flop, The Fastbacks, and The Mono Men — and a clip of Nirvana debuting “Smells Like Teen Spirit” at the defunct Seattle all-ages club, the OK Hotel. While mainstream attention was focused on the darker aspects of the scene, Hype reminded us that not everybody was brooding and that the music was far more diverse than what MTV aired.
Noted L.A. punk David Markey directed 1991: The Year Punk Broke, which follows Sonic Youth around on a European tour — noteworthy for rare footage of openers like Nirvana, Babes in Toyland, Mudhoney and Dinosaur Jr. While the movie title refers to when Nirvana and alternative rock fully crossed over into the American mainstream, the documentary itself is a kind of epitaph for the carefree side of underground music, and serves as an interesting time capsule to the pre-Alternative Nation days. By 1992, alternative rock would become a commodity, and the relationship changed between bands and fans. Hand-shake record deals with a friend’s label gave way to huge contracts with huge corporations.
You could fill a (sad) day watching all of the Nirvana documentaries — and I don’t like to focus on that side of things — but it’s worth noting that Kurt & Courtney, Nick Broomfield’s 1998 documentary, includes the only filmed instance of somebody taking the Mentor’s singer El Duce seriously. Far more interesting than Broomfield’s conspiracy theories, however, are the documentaries I’m Now: The Mudhoney Story (a good reminder of why some consider Mudhoney the best band of the era) and Busted Circuits and Ringing Ears. The latter is a particularly great documentary about the heavier-than-thou band, Tad. And while there should be a definitive movie about the riot grrl movement, all that exists now is the 2013 Kathleen Hanna documentary, The Punk Singer. Hanna’s band Bikini Kill was one of the best punk bands of the 90s, and inspired countless musicians.
FAN FICTION: GRUNGE SCENE-SETTING
Cameron Crowe’s Singles was set in the early 1990s; its backdrop — the burgeoning Seattle grunge scene — tricked rock-and-rollers into watching a sappy rom-com. Campbell Scott’s character is a bit moody and square (in one scene, he holes himself up in a club bathroom while Soundgarden tear through “Birth Ritual” fifty feet away). Matt Dillon’s character, on the other hand, is a goofy grunge singer for Citizen Dick, whose iconic song is a Mudhoney spoof. Crowe had been a rock writer in the early 70s, so he has a good eye for capturing the ridiculous side of rock, but overall, Singles is more about relationships than music. Still, the audience gets to glance inside the OK Hotel, can try to spot local grunge guest stars, and watch a few minutes of peak-era live Alice in Chains. Crowe went on to direct the Pearl Jam Twenty documentary. Watch them close together and marvel at the fashion similarities between bassist Jeff Ament and Matt Dillion’s character Cliff in Singles.
The less said about 2001’s Rock Star, the better. In it, Mark Walhlberg transforms from a screechy metal singer to flannel-wearing grunge guy who sings at Seattle coffee houses. All told, the fictional treatments of grunge aren’t nearly as interesting or entertaining as any of the aforementioned documentaries on the subject. Still, there was a fleeting moment when filmmakers tried to capitalize on the trend, with various degrees of success. Maybe there’s not a Citizen Kane in the list, but at least there’s a “Citizen Dick.”