Friday, April 23, 2010

1991: THE YEAR PUNK BROKE [Hot Docs review]

~ 99-minutes ~ super-8mm ~ 1992 David Geffen Co.~
Starring: Sonic Youth, Nirvana, The Ramones, Dinosaur Jr., Babes In Toyland & Gumball
Featuring: Thurston Moore, Kim Gordon, Lee Ranaldo, Steve Shelley, Kurt Cobain, Dave Grohl, Krist Novoselic & Courtney Love
Cinematography, Edited & Directed by David Markey

Go forth and thrash

Once in a while a film comes along and captures the precise moment when a culture shifts. One of those films is David Markey's 1991: The Year Punk Broke. Long out-of-print and unavailable on DVD, Markey's documentary chronicles the euphoric two-week European tour in August 1991 by Sonic Youth, Nirvana and other bands who would soon be labelled grunge. His film takes a snapshot of the underground just before it exploded into the mainstream.

Twenty-three days after the bands played their last gig in Rotterdam on September 1, Nirvana unleashed their album, Nevermind, upon the world. Nearly 20 years later,
1991: The Year Punk Broke makes a rare appearance at Toronto's Hot Docs International Documentary Film Festival screening from a new DigiBeta videotape that Markey reports is superior to the 1992 16mm print. Otherwise, audiences have to hunt down his film on the internet in highly compressed form (fuzzy picture, muddy MP3 sound) as it remains stuck in legal limbo with lawyers battling over rights and royalties.

Anarchy in the U.S.A.
In 1991, the Soviet empire was crumbling and Americans were entering a recession after three terms of far-right Republican rule. A cynical generation came of age that endured the greedy Reaganite eighties that left the U.S. the winner of the Cold War, but also unemployed and culturally bankrupt. (Sound familiar?) With all this anger, no wonder that punk rock (aka grunge) took off.

Music is the bellwether of cultural change. It's immediate, cheap to produce and reaches a mass audience. "Alternative" music (an insipid term) stayed underground during the Reagan era when hair bands, heavy metal and drum machines ruled. However, one of the leading alt/indie bands was Sonic Youth whose 1988 album, Daydream Nation, attracted mainstream raves and surprisingly good CD sales. These noisy New York rockers laid the path for the 90s revolution.

Sonic Youth's 1990 follow-up, Goo, was distributed by major label Geffen who, at bassist Kim Gordon's recommendation, signed a rising act of Aberdeen, Washington called Nirvana. After supporting Sonic Youth on their Goo tour, Nirvana (among others) was invited to join them on a two-week tour of Europe in August 1991.

Director David Markey came along with his super-8mm camera and a suitcase of film. "This ended up being a last-minute thing," Markey tells Reel 'n' Rock over the phone from Los Angeles. "I had done a couple music videos and short films with Sonic Youth, and we had wanted to make a documentary of the making of Goo, like Goddard's Sympathy For The Devil." For some reason, that never happened, but when the tour came up, Markey leapt at the chance to capture it on his super-8, a format he'd been using since childhood.

By chance, the film opens on a shot of a baby like the cover of Nevermind. Beneath the opening credits, Thurston Moore does his campy white boy rap as wife and SY bassist Kim Gordon and Nirvana singer/guitarist Kurt Cobain dance like little children over railroad tracks.

Markey's camera work is unapologetically handheld. We're used to shakiness now, but 1992 audience weren't and were instead expecting the slickness found in Nirvana's MTV videos, namely Smells Like Teen Spirit.

Markey recalls getting very mixed reviews upon the 1992 release. However, in his defence, his grainy super-8 handheld style perfectly suits the rough, raw style of Sonic Youth, Nirvana, Dinosaur Jr and all the bands in this film. His style also harks back to the earliest days of rock docs and sits comfortably next to D.A. Pennebaker's 1967 groundbreaker, Don't Look Back, about Dylan's 1965 British tour:

Thurston's white boy rapper persona is the thread that runs through Year Punk Broke, as his interviews and on-camera raps link the disparate performances gathered from the tour. Besides creating unity, Thurston's raps help elevate this film from the typical concert doc ghetto of live clips. Moore acts like a Greek chorus, joking often, but sometimes spewing some truths. Basically, he's saying that Western (and Eastern) youth culture is sick of the straightjacket they've worn for the past decade and that a fresh, new voice is rising to the fore. However, there's a sense in his tone that the Corporate Machine may later absorb this movement into its guts.

Moore's character came directly from his white homeboy character that starred in Markey's hilarious short film made that spring called Rap Damage (In Search of The Hip Hop Rabbit):

Cut to the first concert number: a sea of heads bob in the sun to the beat of Schizophrenia: "...her brother says she's just a bitch with a golden chain." A new young tribe of rock has gathered, celebrating something pure and visceral, and entirely their own. Sonic Youth's thrashing guitars slice away the clean corporate music of the eighties.

After their rousing performance, we move to white rapper Moore jabbering away from his hotel window with bandmate Lee Renaldo looking on, until Moore declares to an empty street beneath him, "Go forth and thrash!"

That perfectly leads to Cobain singing the opening verse of Negative Creep in a dainty falsetto before Nirvana launches into the song full-throttle like a Panzer division hurtling across the Rhine. Unlike the languid tempo of Schizophrenia, the sequence here propels forward in a swirl of images:

Kurt bodysurfs, drummer Dave Grohl furiously smashes his hi-hat, the giant Krist Novoselic twirls the small Cobain upon his shoulders like a wrestler, the crowd pogoes in a sea of bobbing heads. Nirvana's entrance in the film is simply explosive. Markey ends the montage on a sweet and symbolic note with Moore pulling Cobain back onto stage.

"This tour is a dare"
Moore declares to the camera that "this tour is like a dare to our parents, the Bush administration, the KGB...and the future." Elsewhere, he comments on the irony of modern punk as seen in Elle magazine with Motley Crue singing Anarchy in the U.K. "One of the most sickeningly candyassed versions you'll ever hear."

"It was an inside joke," recalls Markey who was dripping with sarcasm when he heard that version himself, "but clearly the title went on to have a whole different meaning after the fact, after Nirvana became the next Beatles." Why did Nirvana hit it so big? Markey describes that as an interesting time when "this energy that had been built up for a very long time,
like a giant zit that needed popping."

The title became prophetic, but Markey insists that no one on the tour saw the Grunge Revolution coming nor uttered the G or P ("punk")
words, though all the musicians were schooled in that music except The Ramones who were that school. The Ramones make a cameo onstage, all too briefly. In contrast, Markey didn't have access to another punk icon, Iggy Pop, though in one scene we see Thurston calling out to him backstage, "Here IggyIggyIggyIggy!" In another cameo, Courtney Love shows up during a press interview, all giggles and smiles. She was dating Smashing Pumpkins' Billy Corgan, so there's no interaction with Cobain on screen. "She didn't play any shows," recalls Markey. "She finagled her way backstage."

That playfulness sums up the tour. Markey's diaries and recollections describe a two-week long party with lots of booze and little sleep. Many were abroad for the first time and enjoyed the trappings of touring for a major league label, especially after toiling in countless dives (like the one where and a bouncer smashed Cobain in the face).
They perform scenes mocking Madonna's documentary at the time, Truth or Dare, with Cobain playing the wide-eyed Kevin Costner character who meets the big star backstage, causing Kim Gordon to stick her finger down her throat.

That reckless energy exploded on stage. The Year Punk Broke remains a great film to watch because the live performances are so good. Cobain shreds his vocal chords as he shrieks "NO RECESS!" in School, before he and Grohl trash their instruments. "You're in high school again," chants Cobain as we see several chickens spinning in a rotisserie.

obain caps another set by hurling himself atop the drum kit to end the apocalyptic Endless Nameless. Early live performances of Smells Like Teen Spirit and Polly are icing on the cake. Not to be outdone, SY delve into oceans of feedback for Mote as strobe lights flash around them and a mirrorball lies on stage.

They rip through Teenage Riot which Markey accentuates with black-and-white footage and time lapse. In Kool Thing he places singer Gordon in a strip of film and intercuts frenetic concert footage with the band playing spin the bottle on the street.

Dinosaur Jr, Gumball and all-girlllll band, Babes in Toyland, hold their own against the headliners.

At the time, 1991: The Year Punk Broke was seen as another concert film, or even worse. Today, it's a pop cultural artifact that has withstood the ravages of time. Its earthiness defies nostalgia, though it's easy to mythologize the bands in this film because of the subsequent impact they had on rock music and wider Western culture. Whatever you call it, grunge set the tone for the rest of the 90s in the U.S. and the U.K. where even Britpop kings, Oasis, owed a debt to the screaming guitars-and-sweet melodic approach of Nirvana et al.

Again, Markey stresses that none of this occured to anybody at the time. He himself didn't see Cobain as the Tortured Artist, but as a member of a band called Nirvana. "Things changed really fast for them. Overnight, the pressure was on. Sadly, Cobain never resolved it."

Markey jokes that his film is "a home movie on acid," but it's really the last moment of innocence for Nirvana before megastardom devoured them: "A little snapshot as a band before all of that."

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1 comment:

  1. Great review. One of my favorite movies ever!