Superb sound and image quality and a complex, intelligent perspective help make “Hype!” an engaging as well as thoughtful chronicle of the Seattle rock scene during its decade-long rise to worldwide influence. Since that arc arguably passed its peak a couple of years ago, pic has a retrospective feel that, though it may slightly blunt its commercial chances, actually enhances docu’s historical balance. Result is a top-notch specialty item that should fascinate and impress its primary audience, contempo rock fans.
Filmed over 3 1/2 years, “Hype!” strikes just the right balance between insiderish enthusiasm and critical detachment. It also does a skillful job integrating music footage with interviews detailing Seattle’s transformation from homey local scene to international media phenom.
According to survivors, it all began as a backwoods refuge where rain drove kids to the basement to blast out their frustrations on guitar. While indie music’s “do it yourself” ethic prospered in other regions during the ’80s, in Seattle its effects were especially pronounced. The kids came out of the basement into clubs in record numbers, evolving their own music-biz infrastructure as well as a de facto musical ethos.
What became “grunge” blended punk’s rawness and heavy metal’s thundering volume in a brew that had its own flavor of wry, whimsical disaffection. The attitude soon earned a hipster cachet nationally, thanks partly to the novel anti-marketing marketing schemes of local label Sub Pop, which, as one observer recalls, brazenly promoted itself over its bands. Before long, the national music industry sensed the rumblings.
Ironically, the U.S. underground had about decided that Seattle was “over” when, in 1991, a band that’s recalled as “the runt of the litter” issued its major-label debut. With the commercial nuclear flash that was Nirvana and its single “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” Seattle’s culturescape was altered forever.
“Absurdity” is the word insiders use to recall how their world changed when global celebrity struck and suddenly everyone wanted to know about, or make a buck off of, the Seattle sound. The gullibility of the New York Times, for example, is tweaked in one local’s story of making up a glossary of Seattle “lingo” for a credulous reporter; as pic shows, the Times ran the bogus slang, straight-faced and unverified, as breaking cultural news.
Bands such as Pearl Jam, Soundgarden and Mudhoney went on to establish themselves as prominent forces in American pop music, but even their members sound notes of frank disillusionment in reflecting on Seattle’s commercial ascent. Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder, in fact, says it would be “a tragedy” if it turned out these events had no idealistic purpose or lasting benefit. Sensibly, “Hype!” leaves it to the viewer to decide whether that tragedy has already occurred.
No doubt, in covering such a vast and densely populated field, pic leaves out much and favors some scene-makers and viewpoints over others. But overall its approach is admirably forthright and lucid, providing a fitting corollary to the candor, humor and personality displayed by docu’s interview subjects. These include musicians both famous and unknown, as well as local writers, music producers and label people.
Of special note is the exemplary technical quality achieved by director Doug Pray and his crew. Though never glossy, pic’s images and editing are sharp and riveting. Even better, sound reproduction has an almost majestic sweep that fittingly renders music that was born to be awesome in its volume and intensity.