Seattle's rearview mirror
Gazette file photo
FATHER OF THE FLANNEL GENERATION. Kurt Cobain leads grunge on a search for Nirvana. Hype! features the band's first ever performance of "Smells Like Teen Spirit."
By Paul Fruitman
There is a moment in Hype!, the Seattle rockumentary, which shows at once how powerful and ridiculous pop culture can be. As cameras pan across department store mannequins sporting grunge fashions with hefty price tags, a muzak version of Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit" plays over the proceedings.
It was too many real-life incidents like this that convinced producer Steve Helvey and director Doug Pray, then two UCLA film students, to head north in the fall of 1992 and find out what all the commotion was about. But at a time when Seventh Avenue had gone grunge and cameras outnumbered even trees in the Pacific northwest, the initial reaction says Helvey was, "Here comes Hollywood."
But once the scenesters, musicians and insiders realized what Helvey and Pray were trying to do, those cloudy to the thought of media exposure began to brighten up.
"When we got there, all the traditional news media wanted was Nirvana and Pearl Jam," says Helvey from his San Francisco home. "But we wanted to create a portrayal of the community that was how the community would see itself. I think the reason people like [Eddie Vedder and Soundgarden's Kim Thayil and Matt Cameron] agreed to be in the film was because they realized that we weren't trying to exploit their fame."
What Helvey and Pray discovered more than anything else was how warped an impression of Seattle the news media was giving the rest of the world. Helvey points to the media attention given to heroin, an aspect of the Seattle scene purposefully not covered extensively in Hype! as one example.
"Obviously to ignore heroin would have been absurd," says Helvey. "But that has already been so over-covered. I don't think heroin was as much a part of the community for the people in it as for those writing headlines."
One scene which illustrates the media distortion sees Sub Pop's Megan Jasper recount how she snowballed The New York Times into believing, and printing on its front page, a language of made-up grunge slang.
"[Debunking the myths] wasn't as much an aim as a result," explains Helvey. "We wanted to document what it was like for a group of musicians who were isolated to suddenly be the American flavour of the month."
This Hype! does. Beginning in the early '80s with bands like Green River and the Monomen, Hype! shows how a group of DIY bands, the Sub Pop record label and the pop culture machine transform a sleepy, conservative coast town into the mecca of cool.
Hype! has an air of authenticity principally because it scraps the narrative and lets the musicians, producers and those responsible for the Seattle explosion, tell the story themselves through their own words and music.
Helvey and Pray try to highlight lesser known acts like Tad and The Young Fresh Fellows, but of course Nirvana, Pearl Jam and Soundgarden get their due. All three give live performances, while members of the latter two juggernauts also give interviews. Conspicuously absent, however, are words from Alice in Chains, Nirvana or anyone from Pearl Jam other than Vedder.
"It was by no means a perfect collection of people to interview," admits Helvey. "Certainly after Kurt [Cobain]'s death, [Nirvana] didn't want to be interviewed. Part of it had to do with who wanted to speak and who was available."
Nevertheless, Hype! does include comments from many of Seattle's biggest musical stars, as well as some of the scene's engineers, like Sub Pop founders Bruce Pavitt and Jack Poneman, photographer Charles Peterson and producer Jack Endino.
And Hype! works beyond any one individual and even beyond Seattle itself because its message goes past the grunge explosion.
"We're a culture constantly looking for stars," says Helvey. "It's got to be new. Fresh. Hype! is about music and Seattle but in some ways this whole movie is about a phenomenon that happens in America and around the world in which the pop culture machine grabs onto something and uses it to sell product."