When director Doug Pray and his crew descended on Seattle to document the city’s music scene, “grunge” was already in full flower, and just about every media outlet in the world had already told its story. Or so it seemed. Pray and company found a fresh angle for their documentary Hype!one best summed up in the film by Seattle journalist Dana Anderson. “Being in Seattle in the early ’90s,” she says, “was like being in London in the late ’70s; when you see a pop-culture revolution from the inside, you realize how stupid the whole thing is.”
Since the filmmakers were absent for the bulk of the revolution, they’ve subtly recreated it. The documentary begins in a low-key mode, intercutting small club performances by such underrated Seattle journeymen as The Fastbacks and Mono Men with reminiscences about the early era of Seattle rock. The interviewees (including Kim Thayil, Eddie Vedder, and several other local legends) share their enthusiasm for the DIY aesthetic of those nascent years, and their enthusiasm is infectious. When one man pulls out a chart showing all the Seattle bands that have shared members, it’s hard not to feel a pang of regret at having missed that first anarchic, creative burst.
Hype! picks up momentum as the filmmakers relay the story of Sub Pop, the independent record label that sought both to capture the sound of the Pacific Northwest and to exploit it shamelessly. Their biggest coup? Flying in a British journalist and offering trumped-up evidence that Seattle had the next big rock wavea crude hybrid of punk and heavy-metal that had been dubbed “grunge.” Within months, the British music press was all over the story, and their American rivals were scrambling to catch up.
At this point, Hype! becomes more than just an exciting rock document. In its portrait of the shallow, lemming-like mentality of the media, Hype! joins the tradition of the finest film exposés. It documents how the klieg lights first illuminated the city’s music scene and eventually dimmedonly to return and burn even brighter.
After a lull, during which the underground denizens of Seattle assumed that their moment had passed, Hype! unearths some rare footage of a band playing a new song at a party. The song is “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” and the band is Nirvana, whose simple pop hooks would issue a melodic invitation to fellow travelers around the world.
Suddenly, grunge saturated the alternative press and spilled into the mainstream. Clueless reporters would call Sub Pop and baldly ask for “the Seattle story.” In one of Hype!’s most telling scenes, Sub Pop’s receptionist, Megan Jasper, reports how she duped the venerable New York Times by giving them a fictitious “glossary of grunge” (e.g. “wack slacks” and “check you on the flippety flop”). In the film’s final section, Pray intercuts scenes from popular culture (grunge fashion shows, Larry “Bud” Melman wearing flannel in a phone commercial) with three telling pieces of footage: Soundgarden unhappily gearing up for a big arena show, Pearl Jam cranking out an especially sad version of “Not For You” for a radio broadcast, and the candlelight vigil in Seattle on the night of Kurt Cobain’s suicide.
The thrill of Hype! (as with When We Were Kings and too few other documentaries lately) comes in seeing filmmakers in total command of their material. They talk to the right people, ask the right questions, and tell the entire story from beginning to end. More importantly, Pray and crew offer reasons why this story is an important one, beyond its value as a cultural artifact (which is not insignificant either). Hype! is ultimately a film about hypethat peculiar frenzy that feeds on itself when the mainstream media suspect that they’re missing something. The movie carefully constructs a fragile funhouse mirror to show the grotesque media-inflated reflection of Seattle’s loose, unassuming roots.
Hype! is also a great rock ’n’ roll movie, loud as hell and twice as scary. Few Seattle bands are interesting beyond a song or two, but Hype! keeps the energy level high by mixing up the performances and presenting a variety of styles. For us rock fans who followed the buzz about Seattle from afar and could never quite understand the hoopla, this film effectively shows what we missed. We experience the scene at its best and worst, its most popular and most obscure, and we begin to understand how fickle fame can be and sometimes how apt. When Nirvana takes the stage at the film’s midpoint, they obliterate every act that precedes and follows them.
Since grunge has declined, modern rock has been adrift, without a style to define itself in concert with or in opposition to. Hype! may be cynical about the way business concerns co-opt artistic vision, but what stays with the viewer is how fun things were in Seattle before the media waves crashed. The repercussions may have been silly and dangerous, but the movie still captures the thrill of going to a club with low expectations and getting blown away by an unknown group. Leaving Hype!, don’t be surprised if you smell beer on your clothes and smoke in your hair, or if you have that pleasant ringing in the ears that reminds you that you’ve just had a good time. And don’t be surprised if you feel a little woozy and queasy, as though a long party had finally ended.Noel Murray
Hype! shows Tuesday and Wednesday at Vanderbilt’s Sarratt Cinema.
The 1960s may have spawned cherubs of flower power and peace, but Brian De Palma isn’t one of them. He’s the child of November 1963, a consummate gadget freak turned inveterate conspiracy theorist and cynic. His 1981 thriller Blow Out, a commercial failure when first released, now ranks among the decade’s most arresting films, a crackerjack suspenser that’s also a great director’s sobering self-critique. De Palma’s surrogate, a Philadelphia sound-effects man named Jack Terri (John Travolta), accidentally records a car crashing into a lake; he rescues a girl inside the car, Sally (Nancy Allen), only to discover a sinister plot involving the dead man behind the wheel.
The ensuing mystery, with its echoes of Dealey Plaza and Chappaquiddick, is the ultimate extension of the Kennedy fixation De Palma unveiled in 1968’s Greetings. (In that film, a conspiracy nut traced magic-bullet trajectories on his girlfriend’s nude body.) Here De Palma adds his own version of the Zapruder film, a breathtaking five-minute deconstruction of film process in which Travolta pieces together the crime on celluloid using magazine stills. Unfortunately for Jack, De Palma understands the lessons of Zapruder: Just because you caught the crime on film doesn’t mean you got the big picture.
Part of the movie’s pleasure is De Palma’s dizzying revelry in moviemaking. No director has ever shown more misgivings about his craft while indulging in its possibilities. As in Sisters, he shows off his command of technique through deft parodies: He sends up slasher movies and TV news here with equal skill. The director also performs sleight-of-hand with split screens, transitional tricks (courtesy of ace editor Paul Hirsch), and background actions that comment ironically on what’s happening up front. (Listen closely during the credits, and you’ll know who gets killed and how.) In the process, he creates a haze of corruption that seeps into the corners of the frame like poison gas. The movie teems with ingenious multilevel shots like the one that, in a single graceful sweep, takes in a man approaching a railroad station, a killer several stories above him wiping blood from a shoe, and the inside of the station.
And yet Blow Out shows De Palma torn between his love of the means and his distrust of the ends. Throughout the successes of Carrie, The Fury, and Dressed to Kill, De Palma had been hounded, as always, by charges that he was a geeky, sadistic misogynist who got off on violence, especially against women. In later movies he would respond with bursts of reactionary, hyperbolic bloodshed calculated to piss off (and on) his critics. But Blow Out suggests the criticisms struck a nerve. At the movie’s heart is Sally, the sweet-natured not-so innocent oblivious to the ruthless forces closing in on her; it’s no accident De Palma cast his then-current wife in the role. In the unnerving but utterly appropriate ending, he acknowledges that, even if moviemakers don’t cause violence, they aren’t above exploiting itor anything else around them, even the people they love.
Blow Out was released at the height of the slasher-movie craze, and it was pretty much lost in the year of My Bloody Valentine and the first of eight Friday the 13th sequels. The cycle has come round again: The insipid retro slasher flick Scream is one of 1997’s most influential surprise hits, with a sequel and more imitations already in the works. De Palma’s movie still stands tall. In 1981, when I was a high-school movie geek with a serious horror-movie jones, I loved Brian De Palma because he was the only director who combined the pleasures I got from art movies with the thrills I got at the drive-in. Even after 16 years, Blow Out still delivers more of both than any other movie of its time.Jim Ridley
Blow Out shows Monday at Sarratt Cinema.
If only they would show HUDSUCKER PROXY, the Coens' most overlooked and underrated movie. It…
One I'm really looking forward to is KANSAS CITY LIGHTNING, Stanley Crouch's book about Charlie…
Another excellent idea: Prints! Check out Sam Smith's shop of awesome limited-run movie posters: http://samsmyth.wazala.com/widget/?nicknam……
Just realized Rayna is wearing the same frilly pirate blouse I wore for school photo…
It hardly seems news that the classic White Christmas is a corny show with contrivances,…