Judge Adam Arseneau doesn't believe it.
Your town is next.
I remember the day back in grade six or seven when all the Poison, Bon Jovi, Warrant, and Ratt shirts sported by my peers were simultaneously replaced by Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, and Nirvana shirts. At some point, around the same time, I stopped wearing Vuarnet long-sleeved neon shirts and traded up for torn jeans, cardigans, and flannel shirts, coincidentally right around the time somebody gave me a cassette copy of "Bleach" by Nirvana. Grunge had hit my little town just like it was hitting every town in North America—a plague of mutilated power chords, cheap instruments, and bad fashion.
Seattle was too out-of-the-way in the early 1980s for most touring musicians to visit, and most major band tours rarely ventured further north than California. Isolated from the rest of the country, like the evolutionary musical equivalent of Madagascar, the city developed its own flavor of aggressive music heavily influenced by heavy metal and punk rock without any of the world even getting wind of it. No doubt, some people think that "grunge" music simply sprang from the loins of Kurt and Courtney one day and took over the world; in actuality, the music scene in Seattle was a vibrant and unique experience for ten years before Nirvana even got together to play their first chord.
The "your town is next" tag appears directly at the end of the credits in Hype, a documentary about the rise and fall of the Seattle music scene, and sums up the tone of the film quite nicely; it is a warning issued half in mocking jest, and half in deadly seriousness. Five years in the making, Hype captures the whole of the Seattle music scene during its height of popularity, and chronicles the tumultuous musical buildup that eventually exploded into a global pop-culture phenomenon. Rather than focus on the mega-star bands, the film focuses on the effect on the totally unprepared denizens of a long-established underground music scene—a bizarre subculture within an already bizarre subculture of the northwestern United States—on the small bands who suddenly found themselves thrust in front of the cameras, and ultimately, on the complete implosion of the music scene and downward spiral therein. It also coincided metaphorically with the reverberation of a shotgun blast in 1994 that tore an entire pop culture phenomenon asunder.
Facts of the Case
Chronicling the star-studded rise and tragic decline of all things grunge, Hype is the first film created by Doug Pray, creator of the excellent hip-hop / turntablism documentary Scratch, and gives a wonderfully intimate look into the people, the city, and the music of the northwestern United States that would take the world by storm. Rather than focusing on the hype (the title is clearly ironic), the film instead focuses on the scene itself, the people who built up the music for a decade before bands like Soundgarden, Pearl Jam, and Nirvana blew the lid off the music industry and stabbed a stake in the heart of hair-band glam rock. The film features performances by Blood Circus, Coffin Break, Crackerbash, Dead Moon, The Fastbacks, Flop, Gas Huffer, The Gits, Hammerbox, Love Battery, The Melvins, The Mono Men, Mudhoney, Nirvana, Pearl Jam, The Posies, Seaweed, 7 Year Bitch, Some Velvet Sidewalk, Soundgarden, Supersuckers, The Young Fresh Fellows, and Zipgun, and interviews with countless influential musicians, record executives from Sub Pop, K Records, Llama Pop, and other seminal Seattle labels, music critics, and important members of the Seattle music scene.
For a movie with the title Hype, it certainly goes out of its way to avoid any. The film does its homework into the Seattle music scene and covers its basics. There is no question about the documentary's authenticity and research prowess, and unless you grew up in Seattle and went to shows actively since 1979, the large majority of the bands mentioned in this film will be completely unknown to you (as they were to me). These were the bands that played one infamous show one night in 1987, cut one record with their friends, and broke up the same night—bands that had a huge influence on the music that eventually spread across the country. The film references countless such influential Seattle bands of absolute obscurity, and illustrates exactly how tightly knit the early days of the scene were. Everyone knew everyone else, and the same musicians would play in the same bands in a constant game of rotating chairs. Guitarist A would join band B, then jump over to band C, and after the breakup, would end up drumming in Pearl Jam—things like that.
Hype is a highly segmented film, and its producers have intentionally structured it like a Greek tragedy, of all things, punctuated with top-notch performances by some of the seminal bands of Seattle. The first act features artists, record labels, and influential scenesters talking about the early days of the Seattle music scene, all with a sense of fond remembrance and pride in their voices. Theirs was a lazy, slacking, drunken music scene, with strong "do-it-yourself" ethics, where you learned how to play guitar in your basement, practiced with your band in your garage, and played shows down at the local truck stop beer hall to a crowd of sixteen, most of which are friends you invited. Halfway through the film, in act two, as the Seattle music scene takes on a world stage, this fond attitude gives over to a more cynical, tongue-in-cheek sarcasm. Everyone seems slightly embarrassed at all the attention, almost wincing at the outlandishness of the Seattle "scene" (a word nobody would have ever, ever said before the explosion of the music across the world). What starts as a tribute to the early days of the scene gives way to self-realized hilariously sarcastic sequences, sobering realizations of how insane things got—like showing mannequins in department stores, dressed up in flannel shirts, stocking hats and long johns under shorts all priced at designer prices, with a Muzak version of "Smells Like Teen Spirit" playing in the background. Then, the final act chronicles the complete spiritual and metaphysical death of the music scene, characterized metaphorically with the death of artists like Andy Wood of Mother Love Bone and Kurt Cobain from Nirvana. These deaths (especially the latter, for obvious reasons) had such a disillusioning affect on the Seattle music scene that it robbed any remaining joy left for the musicians still remaining.
So what went wrong? The biggest problem seemed to be the highly centralized attention focused on a small number of bands in the Seattle area after the mushroom cloud that was Nirvana blew the headphones off every teenager in North America. Record label executives descended upon the city like a swarm of suit-wearing locusts, buying up the crappiest bands in order to secure the "next thing," and while certain bands like Soundgarden, Pearl Jam, Alice In Chains, and Nirvana reaped the success of the Seattle explosion, they literally took all the attention focused on Seattle on their shoulders. The hundreds of other bands struggling up through the scene simply ended up tipping over in the mighty wake left behind them.
Hype seems to suggest that the problem was not the attention on Seattle itself, since there were dozens and dozens of bands that were eager and deserving for the attention and recognition, but rather that the attention stayed primarily on these mega-popular bands; the smaller bands were simply lumped up into the "Seattle sound" and never given the individual recognition they deserved. After the buzz died down and the hype finally died, these bands faded instantly into obscurity, the small amount of notoriety gained from hailing from Seattle now carrying no weight in the industry. On the other hand, ironically, the bands that received all the attention and focus from the entire world soon self-destructed under the crushing pressure of being international rock stars, so it worked out badly for both sides. Eddie Vedder from Pearl Jam gives a particularly candid interview to this fact, expressing his guilty desire that none of his contemporary bands, all just as deserving of the success and popularity his band received, received the same level of success. Things might have been better for everyone, he muses, if the success and good fortune were more evenly distributed around—it might have stopped the popular bands from self-imploding under the pressure, and prevented the forgotten bands from simply disappearing into nothingness.
Recorded in 24-track sound on Super16 film, Hype looks and sounds absolutely fantastic. The concert footage performances are of exceptional quality, considering the low-tech single handheld camera used to shoot most performances. Hardcore fans will no doubt be interested in some of the rarer content included in this documentary, like the intimate Pearl Jam (jam) session with musical friends, and a shaky handheld home video camera recording of Nirvana playing "Smells Like Teen Spirit" live for the first time. All the band's performances are recorded exceptionally well, with incredibly full sound, excellent lighting, and sharp visuals. Overall, colors are muted at times but always well defined, and considering the grainy quality of the stock footage, the presentation is quite pleasing. Certain sequences show some signs of damage and wear, but this goes with the rough-and-tumble style of the film. The detail is quite sharp, and even on close examination the picture holds up quite well. Occasionally, a flannel shirt will vex even the best rendering of a DVD player and result in some shimmering, but the effect is minimal.
A barrage of audio options is available for consumption: a Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo track; a Dolby Digital 5.1 surround track; and a sublime DTS 5.1 track for the decadent types. The Dolby 2.0 and 5.1 surround tracks sound very similar, with decent bass response and channel distribution, but the DTS track is a cut above—loud, rich, and with balls of iron, especially during the live performances. All three audio tracks sound excellent, all are mixed and balanced quite well, but the DTS track is the king of the show.
Both director Doug Pray and producer Steve Helvey contribute to a commentary track accompanying the film, and the filmmakers reminisce ten years to the day on the experience of making a documentary straight out of film school. Apparently, the financial burdens alone were almost enough to sink the project numerous times during its five-year journey to the screen. The track is sparse at times, but very pleasant to listen to, and the filmmakers are more than willing to discuss every nuance of the project. Their divulging attention to subject matter is sure to appeal to both hardcore music fans and the technical filmmaking type alike, since they cover every possible subject in the short duration of the film.
An outtake reel is included, with optional director's commentary, which plays more like deleted scenes than outtakes. Some of the more eclectic personalities interviewed for the film, like TAD and Megan Japser rambled on hilariously, and the material simply had no place in the finished film. As bonus material, however, the interviews are hilarious and revealing. Selections of additional musical performances are also included from Mudhoney, the Supersuckers, Pond, and The Gits, also with director's commentary. The performances are often shot in a single take, and fans of the music are sure to enjoy these additions, the director commenting now and again on some of the more technical aspect of recording the sets.
Some trailers also appear on the disc, along with the standard DVD credits. But the strangest feature by far comes in the form of a cartoon by underground comic book artist Peter Bagge, called "Hate." It's a four-minute animated feature about struggling musicians in Seattle. The piece falls somewhere between Ralph Bakshi's Heavy Traffic and a Ren and Stimpy cartoon. Also included is a three-minute interview with animator Bagge, also with optional director's commentary. Considering the volume of extra material and the lavish attention given by the director in the numerous commentary tracks, it is hard to complain about the technical presentation of Hype.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
As a self-admitted recovering grunge kid, I had a few conceptual problems with Hype that, to the film's credit, are all at least partially addressed in the director's commentary. In keeping with its goal of creating a unified look at the Seattle music scene, the film ended up excluding a lot of bands, interviews, and performances simply out of necessity. There was simply too much to show and tell, and important material had to be cut along the way in order to keep on target. For example, a particularly contentious point for me comes during the footage of The Gits, a seminal punk-grunge band who directly influenced numerous acts throughout the late 1980s and early 1990s. The film includes a live performance of The Gits taken months before the lead singer Mia Zapata was brutally raped and murdered after a concert, an event that sent shockwaves through the closely-knit musical community.
Though the tragedy arguably played a key role in the ungluing of the scene, at least locally, the filmmakers decided not to make any mention of Mia's death, simply because in the grand scheme of things, it had nothing to do with the rise and fall of grunge music on a cultural level. In the commentary track, the director and producer express the agony that went into this decision, but ultimately defend the choice as the correct one, since in telling the story, it would take the film on a path totally absent from its goals. While I agree in theory with the decision, I find it a bitter pill to swallow.
Alas, this is the Catch-22 with making any documentary. The film needs to stay on target as a film first and foremost, even if it means the exclusion of material directly related to the documentary's subject matter. I would have hated to be the editor on a film like this…my cut would have been six or seven hours long.
That being said, credit where credit is due—Hype likewise makes some excellent decisions on excluding certain material, like the complete absence of any mention of Hole or Courtney Love. Personally, I couldn't be happier about that one; it illustrates to me that the filmmakers did their homework.
Also, Courtney Love sucks. Did I mention that?
More a documentary about the loss of intimacy in a vibrant music scene than a star-studded expose, Hype balances feelings of musical nostalgia with cynical disillusionment about the complete self-destruction of the Seattle music scene, a scene that was never really designed to have the spotlight of the world shining directly upon it. The decision seems unanimous among the pioneers and central figures of the era that most would have traded all the success and spotlight to have things go back to the way things were—the scene worked best in smoky beer halls, playing to handfuls of people, and friends jamming in garages, smoking cigarettes.
Whether you were a fan of the music or not, Hype is a well-executed and balanced documentary bursting with raucous musical performances, compelling interviews, and a bittersweet telling of the last great musical pop culture experiment.
Boy howdy, does this film ever make me nostalgic. I'd be breaking out my old vinyl Sub Pop singles right about now…that is, if I hadn't sold my turntable years ago.
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Scales of Justice
• Audio Commentary with Director Doug Pray and Producer Steve Helvey
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