20 Years Ago: ‘Hype!’ Documents The Grunge Explosion
When the Seattle scene documentary Hype! was released on Nov. 8, 1996, the grunge era was essentially over. The embers were still glowing though, mainly due to the shock of Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain’s 1994 suicide having not completely worn off, making for an interesting time capsule that serves as both a record of the musical hotbed that seemed to sprout out of nowhere and its direct effect on those featured in the film.
The story is familiar; bands like Alice in Chains, Pearl Jam and Soundgarden get popular as the '90s dawn, obliterate the suddenly passé hair metal that dominated the charts for the previous few years, then the suits from major labels infiltrate Seattle en masse looking for the next Nirvana. The frame is the same in Hype!, but the subjects give it a localized context which comes off as more insightful, sardonic and bewildered than a typical overview might.
“Seattle was really lame, specifically in the early 80s,” says producer Steve Fisk. “It was like a million second cities that had a fake Talking Heads, a fake Pere Ubu, it had a fake Killing Joke…it had all the fake Ramones you could shake a stick at.”
“Nobody was too worried about success,” adds fellow producer Jack Endino, “Because when you were living in Seattle, it wasn’t L.A., nobody was gonna come and sign us.”
Guitarist Kim Thayil laments Soundgarden’s early gigs where the only members of the audience were members of other bands on the bill, which is kind of the essence of the matter; Seattle was just like every other music scene in the country – until it wasn’t. The title card at the very beginning of the documentary says it all, taken from a 1992 edition of Spin: “Seattle…is currently to the rock ‘n’ roll world what Bethlehem was to Christianity.”
Directed by Doug Pray, Hype! rightfully connects the explosion to the success of Nirvana’s smash single “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” and features what is thought to be the first-ever live performance of the song from Seattle’s OK Hotel on April 17, 1991. Several months later, when the video was dominating MTV, the track and album from which it came topping the charts, is when it all got messy.
“Commerce is involved, and soon as it goes through those channels, those money making channels, everything changes,” says Eddie Vedder.
Out came the wolves from the majors, sometimes signing acts that had just formed or moved from another city in hopes of finding success on the coattails of the buzz, and putting out their albums and simply stamping “Seattle” on it. Meanwhile, homegrown favorites like Gas Huffer, the Young Fresh Fellows and Flop – to this day virtually unknown outside the Pacific Northwest – were being overlooked.
The regional backlash came first, whether it was on the infamous New York Times snow job by a sales rep at Caroline Records who simply made up a bunch of “grunge terms” the prestigious broadsheet then breathlessly published as, “Lexicon of Grunge: Breaking the Code.”
Retrospectively, Hype! remains a fascinating documentary, in part because the bitterness from residents was so fresh. See graphic designer Art Chantry, announcing the “hundreds of dollars” one of his concert posters was worth, before dismissively slicing it on a paper cutter. It’s a bit heavy-handed, but maybe the point needed to be made that way.
Sure, the most high-profile interviews might be with Thayil and Vedder – neither Nirvana nor Alice in Chains are represented – but it’s a solid balance between those who broke big, the ones on the fringes like Mudhoney and Screaming Trees and the ones who barely made waves beyond Seattle’s borders. That factor gives it an authenticity, which is often hard to come by in music documentaries.
Perhaps the most interesting part of Hype! comes in the one part it gets wrong. Following the end credits role with another title card that boldly states, “YOUR TOWN IS NEXT.” Two decades on, nothing remotely close to what happened in Seattle has taken place, no matter how many cities around the world have tried to build their scene as “the next Seattle."
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