Film Reviews

Sells Like Teen Spirit

It could have been any town in America, and it often was: Athens, Georgia; Chapel Hill, North Carolina; Minneapolis; Austin, Texas. Seattle was just another stop on the A&R Express, another destination where the gold-card crowd could run up their expense accounts while they looked for the Next Big Thing. At the end of Hype!, after the credits have rolled and the audience has emptied the theater, "Your town is next" flashes on the screen, and it doesn't matter whether it's a promise or a threat: Yesterday's garage bands are today's superstars are tomorrow's has-beens, and everyone is to blame--the record companies, the rock press, the fans, even the bands themselves.

Hype!, which debuted at Sundance last January, isn't about the birth and death of grunge; that's just a subplot to keep the kids hooked while they wait for the Nirvana concert footage and Eddie Vedder interviews. Rather, it's about the self-destruction of rock 'n' roll itself, how its practitioners are consumed and homogenized until you can't tell the "good guys" from the "bad guys" anymore.

Hype! is often guilty of the very things it pretends to condemn: It may sneer at MTV, it may poke fun at daily newspaper grunge fashion spreads or Rolling Stone magazine cover headlines that tout Seattle as "The Next Liverpool," but in the end, Hype! exists to celebrate and further promote a very small pocket of musicians and indie labels who convinced the world their town mattered more than yours. After all, most of the bands on the Hype! soundtrack are still "underground" heroes--Fastbacks, 7 Year Bitch, Young Fresh Fellows, Some Velvet Sidewalk.

Hype! focuses on one small moment in the alterna-rock time line and blows it up to grand proportions; you'd think Seattle changed everything all at once, that Nirvana and Screaming Trees and Alice in Chains and Pearl Jam single-handedly reshaped the top-of-the-pops landscape in the late '80s and early '90s. It asks you to pity both the superstars--remember that anyone who says it sucks to be famous and rich is lying, and anyone who says it doesn't suck is not famous or rich--and those who never even made it out of Seattle, such as Girl Trouble and the U-Men. It pokes fun at the concept of "grunge" (the Thrown-Ups' Leighton Beezer's hands-on explanation of the evolution of punk into grunge is hilariously right-on) and then exalts the music as though it were something brand-new.

Hype! portrays the musicians simultaneously as heroes and as victims of major labels looking for a million-selling gimmick. "Basically, he said, 'Hey, you sing about dogs, you sing about bein' sick--you got a shtick, it'll take ya to the top,'" says Mudhoney's Mark Arm, talking about a conversation with an A&R exec. "And he basically gave us like five chords, but he said, 'Don't use more than three within one song.'" Mudhoney might well have been the best of the Seattle bands behind Nirvana--but it was also the last signed to a major label and remains the least celebrated of the lot. But Arm knows the shtick better than anyone--so well, in fact, Hype! could have been about Arm alone since no one represents the struggle to reconcile the desire to be good and the desire to be famous better than he. After all, if he hated A&R men so much, he didn't have to talk to them--but he did, landing his ass right on Warner Bros./Reprise, the most major major of them all.

Sub Pop label founders Jonathan Poneman and Bruce Pavitt are the pins around which Hype! rolls, and they make it clear from the beginning that Sub Pop existed to promote Sub Pop, not necessarily the bands on the label. Poneman and Pavitt brought in influential British writers to promote their city and their "scene," touted their singles of the month as a cool marketing gimmick, sold Soundgarden and Nirvana and Mudhoney as brand names. The duo, one a failed musician and the other a failed writer, sold an audience a complete package, and they were as guilty as anyone of turning a city into a "scene" into a Sound. But they're unapologetic about their deeds, proud to flaunt their success.

Hype! skips over much in its 85-minute rush to judgment: Kurt Cobain's suicide is treated glancingly, as is the overdose of Mother Love Bone's Andrew Wood, and the murder of The Gits' Mia Zapata is never mentioned despite the band's appearance in concert footage. But the film is by no means a failure; indeed, part of its charm is that it could have been made in 1975 or tomorrow, so timeless are its themes (especially when the members of Tad reference Spinal Tap to make a point). And the two dozen or so performances sprinkled liberally through the film energize it.

But Hype! and its participants--including the wonderfully articulate Jack Endino, who engineered so much of Sub Pop's output, and photographer Charles Peterson--are struggling with the concept of what it means to be popular in an age of instant stardom. Does credibility disappear with success? Do copycats lessen the value of the originals? Can you ever go home again when your house has been subleased to David Geffen? If nothing else, Hype! is like rock 'n' roll itself--completely contradictory at every turn, not so different from the kid with the earplugs up his nose and the backward baseball cap who condemns the millions of record buyers who think of his music as a soundtrack to a photo shoot: "It pisses me off," he sneers. "I liked 'em first." But maybe it only means something if you like it last, too.

Directed by Doug Pray.

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky