“'91 is the year punk finally breaks through to the mass consciousness of global society.”
Prophetic and compelling, Thurston Moore observes with a dry tone and a mouthful of food.
“'Modern punk' as featured in Elle Magazine; Mötley Crüe singing 'Anarchy in the UK' in a European arena in front of one hundred thousand screaming people. One of the most sickeningly candy-assed versions you’ll ever hear of it, but it is the song itself.And, you read an interview with John Lydon, he just doesn’t give a fuck. To him, it’s a 'larf'.”
Moore’s cynical jab-turned-prediction is central to Dave Markey’s film, itself a happy accident documenting Sonic Youth during a two-week European festival that also features a primordial Nirvana - tagalongs that had yet to “break” punk and “teen spirit” themselves into rock music’s cast of essentials.Initially meant as a tour video for Sonic Youth, who remain the focal point of the film, 1991: The Year Punk Broke became a theatrical release once Nirvana’s impact was felt and major labels began scrambling to locate the next big “alternative” band.
Now that Nirvana’s iconic release, Nevermind, has collected a foot and a half of dust, Markey’s film has some historical significance and nostalgic appeal as it represents bands still hoping to find resonance with a brand of audience that didn’t quite exist at the time.Unlike a lot of music documentaries or concert films capturing a band in its moment, Markey’s film captures these bands before their moment, which makes it rather fascinating.
As far as the DVD edition, there’s a companion to the actual documentary called (This Is Known As) The Blues Scale, which features performances of 'Inhuman', 'White Kross', 'Orange Rolls, Angels Spit', 'Eric’s Trip', 'Chapel Hill', 'Mote', and 'Flower'. There’s also a performance of Nirvana’s 'In Bloom'.A Q&A session that was held twelve years after the film’s initial release entitled Broken Punk provides a lot of back story for the documentary.
During the Q&A, Markey states that he was trying to make a concert film “with some kind of traditional nods to the films of the 1960s, and especially the rock concert films of the '70s.” The film’s visual range puts that across, the concert footage at times multiplied or posterized, strobe-heavy edits or different footage combined for one performance, psychedelic at times, manic at others.Markey’s visual homage to classic rock 'n' roll acts a juxtaposition to the modernity of the music, babyboomer aesthetics applied to Gen-X abrasiveness.
The performances themselves, though, are the film’s triumph. Despite Sonic Youth and Nirvana comprising most of the movie’s live footage, the imbalance, while evident, doesn’t factor.Hearing that striking opening riff of Nirvana’s 'School' while Kurt Cobain slams his head into an amplifier, or listening to Kim Gordon make reference to punk rock breaking in '91 just before Sonic Youth kick into 'Teen Age Riot', moments like these make Markey’s film worthwhile and enhance its importance. Dinosaur Jr.'s performance of 'Freak Scene', an incredibly young J Mascis, windblown and wild, sounds almost too perfect to be live. Other bands featured are Babes In Toyland, Gumball, and The Ramones, obviously the tour’s royalty. ("Are you psyched to see The Ramones?" Moore asks at one point in conversation).
When the bands aren’t playing, though, Markey mostly follows Moore with the camera.Moore either self-indulgently riffs or he holds "man on the street" interviews, asking about things like the "current state of young rock 'n' roll."Markey catches the bands doing press for the festival, most notably with 120 Minutes VJ Dave Kendall who gets a "hi" from Courtney Love after Moore calls her "the biggest star in this room."And, of course, there are various instances of backstage hijinks, food fights and some drug use, the only real unvisited station of rock’s cross being the sex.
By the time the credits role, continual feedback blasts and a colossal amp generates considerable muck as Sonic Youth finishes 'Expressway to Yr Skull'.The dissonance still clings to the air and fizzles wildly as the scene cuts to a television set depicting a smiling John Norris, who introduces MTV’s Best of Summer video countdown while Moore lays on his hotel room bed, twisting his face to mock sickness and convulsively extending his middle fingers toward the screen.
As a final act of protest, Moore puts his ass on display, unintentionally though perfectly capturing that moment in time before alternative culture became MTV culture: a lucrative commodity with Sonic Youth assimilated into its structure.Irony has the final word on the era’s legacy and the generation’s cynicism is deemed justifiable.