Beautiful Melodies telling you Terrible Things Vol. More 90's Punk
In a sequel of sorts to this weeks "New Tune Tuesday," I'll be looking at a recent release that surely would have been featured in a "NTT" during my hiatus, and also fits right in with the 'Nevermind'/Nirvana 1991 archival releases from earlier this week. Sometime in the near future, in response to a couple requests, I will hopefully have a chance to look deeper at the Nirvana 'Nevermind' deluxe box. For now, the "Mostly Non-Film Critique DVD Review" of the recent 20th anniversary release of Dave Markey's film that, by covering bands like Sonic Youth (want more on them? Or at least on band leader Thurston Moore? check out THIS old NTT) and Nirvana just before the fall of 1991, found the perfect timing to give Generation X it's 'Don't Look Back'....
'Sonic Youth in 1991: The Year that Punk Broke'
"'91 is the year that Punk finally breaks through to the consciousness of global society. Modern punk as featured in Elle magazine. Motley Crue singing "Anarchy in the UK" in a European arena in front of 100,000 screaming people. one of the most sickenly candy-ass versions you'll ever hear of it, but hey, it is the song itself."
~Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore sarcasm comes through at a pre festival show lunch~
Every generation deserves it's 'Don't Look Back,' it's generation defining rock documentary. There's a reason why 'Don't Look Back' is continued inspiration for filmmakers doing this sort of tour film, mixing in live performance footage with behind the scenes cinema verite fly on the wall look at the lives of rock stars. It's a great film, and it defined it's star and was perfect timing, right before Dylan went from the most respected songwriter of his generation to huge rock star. "Woodstock," "Gimme Shelter," "The Last Waltz," they all did it. Captured the right moments, at impeccible timing. 'The Year Punk Broke' did that as well, catching Sonic Youth and some up and coming punk rock bands, one small one called Nirvana, doing a festival tour BEFORE the days of festival tours like Lallapalooza. It was fun then, when it was just the "college scene" music. Right before alternative rock was born, the hair and glam rock died and Generation X was THE scene.
"You guys were really...neat"
~Kurt Cobain as Kevin Costner to Sonic Youth after their set~
The film, shot on super-8mm film by Dave Markey, has a handheld quality that felt strange when it came out, and drew some criticism. This was due to the very rigid and stable camera work of MTV and VH1 productions and music videos of the time, shaky cam and constant search for focus in shallow depth of field wasn't a music video fad yet, believe it or not. Now, all these years later, it helps give it an edge in staying relevant in it's shooting style, as well as goes right along echoing with the slight chaos of punk rock scene it was documenting. First and foremost is the music, and it's the core of the film. We get glimpses into the festivals and the shows, or at least performances from them, complete might I had, mainly from Sonic Youth and Nirvana but also Dinosaur Jr, Gumball and the Ramones even. In fact there's a touching moment when the festival circuit finally leads the group(s) to a festival show where they get to play on the same bill as the Ramones. One second Thurston Moore is his usual sarcastic self driving by yelling out he's Joey of the Ramones, but then you see him at a lunch table (with a "Sonic Youth" ID label on it) and he looks over and sees the table that's been set and labeled for "The Ramones" and he mentions how psyched he is to play with them. The film never strays too far away from it's central character, the band Sonic Youth, and they get around 8 full performances shown in the film. Nirvana is second with 5 and you see their growth as a group in this period where they were starting to leave pure hardcore grunge to a more alternative rock sound. Early on in the film (the film takes place across two weeks of festivals) we see songs like "Negative Creep" and "Endless Nameless" but near the end we're treated to "Polly" and an early, pre-mutlti-platinum version of "Smells Like Teen Spirit." A truly must-see time capsule. Also, seeing girl punkers Babes in Toyland do one number is a nice treat and near the end we see The Ramones playing "Commando." On one hand it's a shame they were only on one festival of this tour, but then again, it makes their appearance near the end more special, almost a passing of the torch if you will.
Besides the music, you get the backstage: the good and the bad and the boring, and that's what makes it so fun. The road can be a boring place even for a group of 20-something punk rockers, and at one point we find a bored Kim Gordon dryly exclaiming "I'm aching for some fun." You see that side of the road and the way they tried to deal with it. A vast majority of the in-between song shenanigans come from Thurston Moore, as he consistently tries to make things funny and entertaining. Even if that means grabbing the microphone from the camera and doing an interview at a "Wurst stand" (the film takes place across Europe) or talking to two young pre-teen girls about their favorite music, even though they can't understand a word he says (again, the film takes place across the festival scene in Europe). The film IS a Sonic Youth film primarily, and you have to give it to Dave Markey on this. When he got to the editing stage Nirvana had become the biggest band in the world suddenly, and he didn't use this rare footage of them to take a different path with his film and try and grab their coattails, he even debated on putting the version of "Teen Spirit" in the film, but while the bands presence on the tour is undeniable (I mean Moore wears a Nirvana shirt for most of the film - Cobain wears a SY one often), he continually pushes the focus back to Sonic Youth. Whether that means another live performance of the band, or it means backstage footage of Gordon asking how "the fat corporate guys" got in the front row at the last show as the band joking at how much money they'll each get when they decide to break up after their road manager takes his slice off the top. By the way, the number is decided at between $200 to $2,000
Kim Gordon: "I think you could use some mascara"
Kurt Cobain: "I think I agree"
Nirvana is though, a big part of the film, one of the reasons a title like 'The Year Punk Broke' is both truthful and sarcastic. As I mentioned earlier, you see the band in the middle of it's sound evolution and also in evolution as a band as well. Here they, the most lauded band in punk and college circles from a growing Seattle scene, were not really famous yet. They were however getting some recognition getting to be the main act underneath Sonic Youth, a big stepping stone to the 'Nevermind' hysteria that would soon break out. This lack of fame shows, in a good way. Kurt Cobain is seen on stage doing the things his reputation affords him: on his back playing guitar, breaking his guitar, running full speed into the drum kit, that's fine, that's punk, that's Cobain on-stage. But it's the behind the scene footage that shows the Kurt most like to pretend never existed: Here on film he's like a little kid trying to jump in the camera every chance he can. You see him come backstage to meet with Sonic Youth after a festival performance, he has himself introduced by a road manager as Kevin Costner and saying how great they were before shaking up a bottle of champagne and spraying on anyone not smart enough to run away. You see him dragged around by his feet as he lays on his back behind the scenes as he's labeled "a player," you catch a glimpse of him enjoying Babes in Toyland set from the side of the stage. At one point, before their set, Kim Gordon of SY puts on lipstick on Dave Grohl and Kurt as Krist Novaselic thinks of the most absurd name possible to right in magic marker on the back of a Doctor's coat Kurt is planning to wear on-stage. Even the beginning of the film, with Moore doing his white rapper alter-ego as the credits play, shows Kurt dancing around like a little kid who's been forced to sit down too long. It's interesting to see Cobain before the fame, when he had fun, when he was ALLOWED to have fun. Courtney Love shows up backstage at one point, and you gotta say, that girl's a attention grabbing train wreck no matter what year it is.
All in all it's a great rock doc, some of the editing is dated, as is some of the dialogue (one fans chant on capitalism especially) but at the same time, it's part of the 90's time capsule feel. I'll also say this, I'm not usually into blondes, and maybe it's the fact she can strap on a bass guitar, or maybe it's the short dresses she wore on-stage, but Sonic Youth's Kim Gordon was a 90's-era fox in her time.
The Numbers: Video - 4/5 About as good as a MPEG-2 GOP compressed DVD sourced from what was originally super-8mm film can look. While it's not 16mm, I'd still rather take the 8mm look than a video "MTV" look for rock documentaries.
Audio - 4/5 Behind the scenes stuff comes out pretty well, and the music performances are loud. As they should be.
Bonus - 4/5 You get the 40 minute "outtake" film '(This is Known as) the Blues Scale' which features more live performances from Sonic Youth and Nirvana, as well as more behind the scenes stuff. You also get a Q&A that comes from the mid-2000's, a couple more separate outtakes and a trailer. Not bad.
Aesthetically Speaking - 4.5/5 Just as it should be the packaging is stylized as a out of date 90's looking punk poster. Plus it comes with a nice little booklet, can't complain, usually the studios opt for those inane slip cases over a nice booklet. Extra point just for that.
Available on: DVD
Any questions, comments or suggestions that wouldn't fit in the comment section for whatever reason, you can e-mail me at HAWKmaus@gmail.com Spam certainly welcomed.