Monday night at the Egyptian, NW Film Forum’s Local Sightings festival and SIFF partnered up to do a 21st-ish anniversary screening of Hype!, Doug Pray’s eternally underrated documentary of the rise and slouch of the Seattle music scene of the late-‘80s and early ‘90s.
As I have said many times, to anyone who would listen (and many who refused), the film is astoundingly good at capturing the enduring anti-sophistication of this city in the mid-‘90s—the performed indifference to (which is inevitably to say “obsession with”) fame of some people, the effortless nonchalance of others, and the casual self-effacement of nearly everyone.
Pray’s cameras and editors catch a lot of the ironies that attended the international explosion of what Bruce Pavitt memorably calls “a sleepy coastal fishing village,” but they also stick around, at least momentarily, to measure the process by which those ironies became tragedies.
Of course, that’s the thing about time-capsuley documentaries: 20 years later, you never know what’s going to be funny and what’s going to be painful.
When Hype! first came out in 1996, detachment was the GDP of young Seattleites. Even those of us who were in no danger of being “maniplulated” or “exploited” were often in the business of overstating one’s disdain for attention from the “industry,” the “media,” or any other representative of the outside world. People who had never once been interviewed were vigilant about being misquoted. This is part of why it was hard to get anyone to admit how good the film was in those days.
Another reason: A lot of people were also obsessed—for good reasons that the film spends plenty of time observing—with how wrong everyone always was about everything about Seattle music. Hype! takes the odd chronological or geographic liberty (all within the bounds of any rudimentary documentary viewer’s vocabulary), but you can’t miss the conscience behind the filmmakers’ attempts to tell a story that was rapidly being lost in the much larger social project of consecrating the “grunge” narrative.
Along with a couple-few books, and the odd periodical archive if you’re willing to spend several hours in the library, Hype! may be the only real document—not of the “scene” or the media frenzy years, but of the larger struggle of the bands to assert their individuality against the relentless momentum of the idea that Seattle was one sound, one thing, one word.
Watching again, it felt funny to remember that “grunge” was a gauche tourist word that used to cause embarrassment when uttered in public. It felt funny to remember when people were angry about getting too much, or the wrong kind of attention for their music. It felt funny to see people being unnerved by the presence of cameras. It felt funny to remember how the attitude of studied indifference to success prevailed among bands and audiences—back when every eye was engaged in a perpetual roll, and every bass was tuned to DGAF.
And there were many other excellent laughs: Steve Fisk’s likening of the music business to a Baby Huey who wanders from one cool town to the next, buying lunches and crushing bands; Kim Thayil’s story of being recognized as a member of Pearl Jam; Megan Jasper’s immortal NY Times “Lexicon of Grunge” prank; Charles Peterson’s explanation of the “aesthetic of dumb” in Seattle rock: “like Mudhoney isn’t stupid, but they’re kind of—” and before he could say “dumb,” Mark Arm shouted “Yes we are!”
And then there were the things that weren’t remotely funny.
When Hype! came out the first time, the game was to try and count the people you knew or sort-of semi-knew—people in the bands, people at the shows, people at the edge of the frame. Now the game is: Count the people who have died, and it’s not a game at all.
The film’s narrative construction necessarily leans on Kurt Cobain’s suicide—an obvious framing device, and an obvious appeal to emotion handled with far greater delicacy than it usually is in pop culture. The scene of Jack Endino—who is, the film makes plain, the best guy ever—recounting his response still lands with a devastating power.
But in a way, real life has undercut the film’s structural strategy, since only a few moments before, we’ve just seen Chris Cornell leading Soundgarden through a killer live rendition of “Searching With My Good Eye Closed,” drenched in sweat, young, vital, peak. It’s wrenching. Just as it was wrenching a few minutes before that when Mia Zapata powered the Gits through “Second Skin,” or James Atkins played bass on Hammerbox’s (still insanely strong) “When 3 Is 2.”
It made the footage of the people who survived, on stage and in the crowd, all the more precious.
The audience at the Egyptian cheered when they saw their old friends, their old haunts, their old favorite bands—those smatterings of applause contributed to a feeling that the screening was, in the words of my friend who lived in Minneapolis in the ‘90s, “like being at someone else’s high school reunion.”
That’s hard to deny. It’s equally hard to make the case that a lot of the bands showcased in the film—even the ones who were commandingly popular—have stood the test of time. But time has many tests. That may be Hype!’s true moral after all these years.
The footage of now-old Seattle doesn’t quite look bucolic, but it does look innocent. Or maybe I’m just seeing my own innocence in it. Change is obviously the nature of any urban environment, and this one clearly benefited from the influx of new blood, new bodies, new brains.
As the camera rolls by the old Cyclops, Fallout, Café Paradiso, and you hear one person after another bemoan all the yuppies moving to city for its much vaunted livability, blindly displacing the “crazy, starving people who were here before,” two things become agonizingly clear: (1) The complaint that the good, innocent old days are imperiled by the continued influx of new residents (graphic designer Art Chantry blames the hype from Twin Peaks and Northern Exposure while others fault the promise of rock stardom; today we just say “Amazon”) is as old as those good days themselves; and (2) The complainers have a point.
Far more than any distorted guitar hits that combine the influences of punk, metal, and pop, the true soundtrack of Seattle is the sound of loud, public kvetching about how much better everything used to be when everything sucked—punctuated by raucous, defeated laughter.
Before the film, the audience was treated to an absurd set of noisy, grating, gratuitous music by the Schmidtheads, an ad hoc supergroup featuring members of pre-boom Seattle bands Mr. Epp and the Calculations, the Thrown-Ups, Swallow, and probably about 20 others, legends all. They were magnificent. Ly awful. But also great. It would have been an obvious move to have some youngish band come in and play, I don’t know, “Man in the Box” and “Evenflow” or whatever. Instead, these guys did loud, provocative, improvised (I hope) songs whose influences range from 1968-1978, and nothing in between.
It was a fantastic 20-minute piss-take that harked back to the Seattle where there were no stakes other than to amuse yourselves and your friends, to be the band you would be when you knew for a fact that no more than a dozen people max would ever see it. Doing that show in a theater that seats close to 600 was inspired and annoying in perfect proportion. You could tell because everyone was either laughing incredulously or wincing and desperately cramming popcorn and napkins into their ears while looking for a Yelp page they could leave a negative review on.
There followed a trailer for a film that sums up the legacy of the Seattle music explosion perfectly: Let’s Play Two, Danny Clinch’s forthcoming documentary of Pearl Jam playing a show at Wrigley Field during the Cubs World Series season last year. Whatever vague shade may have once been thrown at that band during their ascent, they’re the last ones standing, the last ones who can fill a baseball stadium, and the only ones who stood up to the media and music business in a meaningful, lasting way.
After the credits, which close with the ominous words “YOUR TOWN IS NEXT” (extra-eerie when you consider how prophetic they proved to be right here in Seattle), a panel was convened on stage with director Doug Pray, and several people who appeared in the film—Mark Arm of Mudhoney, Kurt Bloch and Lulu Gargiulo of the Fastbacks), Carla Torgerson of the Walkabouts, photographer Charles Peterson, and producers Jack Endino and Steve Fisk. Their discussion was moderated by Marco Collins, formerly a DJ at the radio station the End, which was not exactly beloved by the less commercial elements of the local music community.
In a way, Collins and that station offer a perfect illustration of the rift between pre- and post-boom Seattle. They both arrived in the wake of Nirvana and Pearl Jam’s sudden success, and they both represented an embrace of the commercial side of commercial alternative culture, serving the mass audience that was suddenly ravenous for music that only a couple of years earlier was squarely underground. This phenomenon made a few people very rich and famous. It made many others uneasy. That tension is the dominant theme of Hype!. No one brought it up during the Q&A that followed, but it was still present.
[Disclosure: Both Collins and the station were very good to my former band, several years later, so I really am just saying.]
After Pray offered thank yous to a few of his collaborators, Collins dived in with a question that made everyone onstage visibly uncomfortable. “Did the grunge explosion kill the scene?” As soon as he said the words, Endino passed the wireless mic in his hand to anyone who would take it. Fisk winced. Arm scoffed, smiled, and shook his head. Eventually it was determined that no, it hadn’t.
Next up came questions about the suicides of Chris Cornell and Kurt Cobain. Again, palpable discomfort. Not because the subject wasn’t on people’s minds, obviously. Those deaths in particular remain a huge specter over any conversation about Seattle music, then or now, and Collins clearly meant no disrespect by asking them.
I suspect the problem was that to many of the people on that stage, it wasn’t just a subject—though they had all been asked such questions many time before. These were people they knew, worked with, cared about. To be asked blunt questions about human loss while on a movie theater stage—as if it would be possible to sum up such enormous emotions in a way that was terse and entertaining (which is the demand of people in that position)—felt like an intrusion, or at the very least, an extension of the same process that had turned those men and their bands (and the “scene” and the city and, for a time, seemingly every important thing) into commodities, fragments of a narrative, anecdotes. As opposed to life and life only.
But the impulse to sentimentalize the experience of memorializing the early ‘90s extended into the audience, too. Once the floor was opened to questions, two different patrons, a man and a woman, used their time on the mic to tell stories about how they had worshipped the bands in the film, how they had been responsible for making them who they are, how they were devastated when Cobain died, etc. Neither one wrangled their comments into question form. They just wanted their experiences read into the record. Fair enough when you consider what the hell they’d just watched—100 minutes of people doing just that.
But their moist sentiments seemed at odds with the anarchic, celebratory, chaotic nature of the music most closely associated with most of the people they were addressing. Not because they were sincere, but because they were in public. Again, it was hard to know what to say, think, feel, do. Fisk, Peterson, and Arm tried to insert levity into the proceedings. Carla Torgerson got to tell a great anecdote about the time the filmmakers blew off a Walkabouts show they had planned to shoot because Eddie Vedder had decided he was ready to do his interview at the same time. But no one, it seemed, could undercut the audience’s appetite for reverence.
Then a voice from the middle of the room addressed the Fastbacks. “My question is: I know you came in after grunge hit, and I’m just saying good for you! You came in, recorded a couple of ‘sides.’ pretty cool.”
“What’s your question?” asked Gargiulo.
“I’m getting to it!” said the voice, sharply. “So, um, my question is, with you guys being in the grunge scene back in the day: What if we took Pink Floyd—the band—and placed it right in there 20 years ago in the grunge scene. My question is: Would Pink Floyd still suck as badly as they do today? And I’ll take your answer off the air.”
The question had been asked by Tad Hutchinson of the Young Fresh Fellows, and huge eruptions of loud laughter and applause were surrounded by pockets of befuddlement, perplexity, and indignation.
Balance had been restored.
Hype! will be released on DVD and Blu-ray, with a great new sound mix and some fine new bonus features (including a 20 years later featurette, commentary, and Peter Bagge animation) on Friday, September 29.
The Schmidtheads will play with Endino’s Earthworm, Swallow, and the Thrown-Ups at the Benefit for Dawn Anderson (former editor/publisher of the Seattle rock zine Backlash, who is battling cancer), Thurs. October 5 at Slim’s Last Chance.