Hype! feels very much like a window into a seminal moment in music history.
The 20th anniversary release of Hype! confirms its place in the pantheon of great music documentaries.
Hype!Director: Doug Pray
Distributor: Shout! Factory
Rated: Not rated
US Release date: 2017-09-29
Focused on the explosion of music that came out of Seattle in the early '90s, Hype! combines interviews with both some of the most well-known names of grunge's heyday with some that never gained the same notoriety, punctuated with live performances that channel the excitement and energy of the time.
Directed by Doug Pray, the documentary feels very much like a window into a seminal moment in music history. The rise of grunge, as it would be called (to the chagrin of many interviewed in the film), changed the city and the local music scene irrevocably. What makes Hype! so compelling is that it offers both positives and negatives to that experience. The success garnered by some extended to opportunities for others, yet the overexposure and commodification of the music and culture ultimately disillusioned many.
Part of what makes Hype! such an authentic account of the time is that it treats all the bands featured equally. Watching it now, with hindsight, certainly focuses the viewer on particular interviewees (Eddie Vedder, Kim Thayil, among others), but there's no distinction made in the documentary. Vedder and Thayil are presented alongside members of Gus Huffer, The Gits, and Mono Men as naturally as they would be with other huge bands of the era.
The many live performances featured in the film bring the scene to life. The complete commitment to the performances -- loud, often unintelligible, and wild -- makes the bands feel as immediate as possible in recorded form. The crowds, drunk and wild themselves, would often encroach onstage in ways that sometimes made it difficult to distinguish between band members and fans. Part of that blurred line is because audiences were frequently made up of members of other local bands, and because the Seattle music scene could inarguably be described as incestuous, they could also be former and future bandmates.
In addition to the many musicians interviewed, Hype! also focuses on local labels, such as K Records, PopLlama Records, and most notably, Sub Pop Records, as well as producers Jack Endino and Steve Fisk. Founded by Jonathan Poneman and Bruce Pavitt , Sub Pop created an indie record aesthetic, through its singular style, often with the help of Charles Peterson's photography, and its ingenious idea to make collectible the records it produced. There's a healthy mix of admiration and disdain for that approach in the film, but its continuing success points to how smart the label's tactics ultimately were. Though it should be noted that Megan Jasper, seen in the documentary as a former receptionist at Sub Pop and current employee of Caroline Records, as well as the prankster mastermind behind the 'Grunge Lexicon' published in The New York Times, has been Vice President of the label for years and is largely credited for bringing it back from the brink of bankruptcy in the early '00s.
Endino and Fisk's commentary is some of the most illuminating in the documentary. Their emphasis on the homegrown aspect of Seattle's music scene places it in a context of bands doing exactly what they wanted to when they wanted to. There's a constant refrain of boredom by many of the band members interviewed, and so they sought out music as a way to alleviate that boredom. There was no great ambition to make it big, rather Endino and Fisk remind us that the bands were having fun and hanging out with their friends; when they made records they applied that same philosophy.
Seeing bands like The Fastbacks, Dead Moon, Flop, and 7 Year Bitch is a reminder of all the talent brimming in Seattle at the time that, unfortunately, never got the success of some of their fellow local bands. Even Mudhoney, Screaming Trees, and the Melvins all enjoyed some measure of success, although in the end, there were only a few bands that truly exploded (Nirvana, Alice In Chains, Soundgarden, Pearl Jam). Vedder, in particular, expresses guilt over attaining so much when there were many more bands, just as talented, that never did.
The price of success makes a portion of the last part of the documentary fairly bleak. Kurt Cobain's suicide, and the growing connection between Seattle and heroin all come together to paint a sad picture of a once-thriving local scene. Endino notes that Cobain's death was especially difficult to cope with. (“It was hard. I didn't take it well.") Decimated by the commodification of its culture (flannel and combat boots appearing on fashion runways, etc.) and the many wannabe sound-alike bands flocking to the city, Seattle's music scene seemed to be dying. Fortunately, it's resilience marks it as a major American music town even today.
Though largely concentrated on grunge bands, Hype! also spotlights other local bands such as The Young Fresh Fellows, Flop, and The Posies. More garage rock and power pop than hard rock, these bands were as instrumental to the local scene as any of those most typically associated with the area, and their inclusion in the film speaks to that influence, while also making plain the fine lines that separate the bands.
This collector's edition release of Hype! marks its first time on Blu-ray, and includes a collection of excellent bonus features. More than the packaging or extras though, Hype! is a rare glimpse into a moment in time, one that would go on to define music for years to come, for better or worse. From characters like Screaming Trees' Van Conner to graphic designer Art Chantry, to Conrad Uno of PopLlama Records, Hype! revels in the weirdos of the scene. Chantry is a perfect example of the Seattle attitude. He's shown cutting up collectible posters and flyers without a care (though Pray reveals in one of the commentaries that they weren't the originals) while waxing poetic on Seattle's connection to serial killers and flying saucers.
For all the popularity of Seattle's music scene, and the eventual backlash it inspired, Hype! is not interested in telling a story of triumph and failure; ultimately, it's a celebration of Seattle and the community its music scene established, and an exciting one at that.