Sells Like Teen Spirit

It could have been any town in America, and it often was: Athens, Chapel Hill, Minneapolis, Austin. 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 in January and opens here on Christmas Day at the Alliance -- 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. It's about the self-destruction of rock and roll itself, how its practitioners are consumed and homogenized until you can't tell the good guys from the bad guys any more.

The film is often guilty of the very things it pretends to condemn: It may sneer at MTV, it may poke fun at grunge fashion spreads in daily newspapers or at Rolling Stone cover headlines that touted 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 -- Fastbacks, 7 Year Bitch, Young Fresh Fellows, Some Velvet Sidewalk -- are still "underground" heroes.) It's telling that as you watch Hype! you can't differentiate between the zealots and the pretenders: Is Dead Moon supposed to be any good, or are they used here as an example of a band trying to ride the flannel wave through Epic Records' front door? Are Gas Huffer and Flop any better than, say, the band you walked out on three songs into its set last night at Churchill's? Maybe it's just a matter of the lesser of myriad evils: Any world in which Kurt Cobain and Chris Cornell and Eddie Vedder exist as "equals," any world in which the Fastbacks eke out a meager living in cult anonymity while Alice in Chains gets the big bucks, was fucked up long before Macy's started selling flannel shirts at $80 a pop.

Hype! concentrates on one small moment in the alternarock 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 and Tad (oh, right) single-handedly reshaped the top-of-the-pops landscape in the late Eighties and early Nineties. It asks you to pity 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 Soundgarden's Kim Thayil invented.

And Hype! portrays the musicians simultaneously as heroes (a good alternate title might have been Revenge of the Nerds: "We were the guys in high school people used to beat up; we couldn't even talk to the pretty girl," says Screaming Trees' Van Conner) 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 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, being of the late and influential Green River, knows the shtick better than anyone -- so well, in fact, that Hype! could have been about Arm alone because 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 finally he did, landing his ass right on Warner Bros., among the most major majors of them all.

Sub Pop founders Jonathan Poneman and Bruce Pavitt are the ground zero of Hype! 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 even as Soundgarden's Thayil lamely insists he didn't know he'd have to do interviews when he signed to a major label.

Hype! skips over much in its 85-minute rush to judgment: Cobain's suicide is treated glancingly, as is the overdose of Mother Love Bone's Andrew Wood; the murder of the Gits' Mia Zapata is never mentioned despite the band's appearance in concert footage. But part of the film's charm is the timelessness of its themes (especially when the members of Tad reference Spinal Tap to make a point): It could have been made in 1974 or tomorrow. And the two dozen or so performances sprinkled liberally through the film energize it, even when the bands all start to sound like Soundgarden.

But Hype! and its participants -- including the wonderfully articulate Jack Endino, who engineered much of Sub Pop's output, and photographer Charles Peterson -- ultimately never resolve the conundrum of success, a demonized concept in an age of instant and disposable alternarock 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 sublet to David Geffen? If nothing else, Hype! is like rock and 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 means something only if you like it last, too.

Hype! opens Wednesday, December 25, at the Alliance Cinema, 927 Lincoln Rd, Miami Beach; 531-8504. Tickets are $6. See "Showtimes" for a schedule of screenings.


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