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A documentary on the rise of the Seattle music scene

Directed by: Doug Pray
Produced by: Steve Helvey
Co-producers: Lisa Dutton, Pete Vogt
Cinematography: Robert Bennett
running time: 84 minutes

Seattle International Film Festival
Seattle Premiere: May 26, 1996
2nd screening: June 8, 1996

It's been a long wait for Seattle's music fans. Hype! premiered at the prestigious Sundance Film Festival Salt Lake City, Utah in January and later played at SXSW (South by Southwest) in Austin, Texas. Now it was time to unleash it on the city that inspired it and what better place to do so than the Seattle International Film Festival.

The lights went down as Hype! began with a black screen containing only the following quote:

"Seattle... is currently to the rock'n'roll world what Bethlehem was to Christianity."
-- SPIN, December 1992

The audience was in stitches. Before the film had even started it had summarized so well what those who were here at the time knew all along -- that the world's news media and journalists had seriously misunderstood the Seattle music phenomenon and totally blew it out of proportion. It was a sign of things to come, and already the natives could tell they were in for a real treat.

There was no narrator and no overdubs. At just under 90 minutes the film consisted entirely of live concert footage and interviews with those who made the scene and lived through it -- Jack Endino (producer of many a Sub Pop band), Jonathan Poneman and Bruce Pavitt (creators of Sub Pop), Susan Silver (manager of Soundgarden and Alice in Chains), Seattle-photog-god Charles Peterson, who shared many of his favorite shots (including a great promo pic of Green River), and members of most any Seattle-area band worth mentioning over the last ten years such as The Mono Men, 7 Year Bitch, Mudhoney, Screaming Trees, Tad, Gas Huffer, The Fastbacks, Soundgarden, Pearl Jam (only Eddie talked), The Young Fresh Fellows, Dead Moon, Coffin Break, and scores of other bands.

Lots of Seattle scenery. It really gives you a feel of the community. Live footage consists of a great Soundgarden performance of "Searching with my Good Eye Closed" from a '94 show, and the sound was as it should be -- *loud* -- next best thing to bein' there. :) Also of note is Nirvana's first ever live performance of "Smells Like Teen Spirit" with noticeable lyrical differences. And yes, there was footage of Pearl Jam (provided by the band) playing "Not For You" during the Self-Pollution Radio broadcast, accompanied by shots of others who were in attendance such as Layne Staley (Alice in Chains), Krist Noveselic (formerly of Nirvana) and Kim Thayil and Chris Cornell from Soundgarden. *Tons* of live footage of smaller bands in smaller clubs both in Seattle and in other nearby parts of the state. There is even a segment of longtime Seattle faves The Young Fresh Fellows in Japan playing a show in their pajamas. :)

Hype! is like a great rollercoaster ride -- fast parts, calm parts, scary parts, funny parts, but it's anything but jerky. It's been a long while since I've seen a film feeling this kind of excitement, but the pacing is perfect and the emotions change smoothly and frequently. One minute you're laughing your ass off at a great quote ("They form a jigsaw puzzle of a traffic jam on I-5." :) ) and the next you're watching live footage of The Gits' Mia Zapata, and all you can do is sit there with a sinking feeling in your stomach because it's so obvious what the world lost. Very little, actually nothing, is said about Mia's and Andy Wood's deaths, which is a shame because in my opinion the filmmakers missed a golden opportunity to open some eyes on several issues, but I guess some wounds need not be reopened. The film does touch lightly and respectfully on Kurt Cobain's death -- something that just cannot be ignored considering the reasons this movie was made in the first place -- and how it affected those who were being interviewed. For the most part it (thankfully) skips the post-mortem journalistic mayhem that ensued in the mass media...

Hype!'s crowning achievement, however, is its absolutely wonderful and dead-accurate observations of just how ridiculously the Seattle phenomenon was marketed, exploited, and sold to the world, and the natives' actions and reactions were hilarious. The local crowd particularly enjoyed the "grunge slang deciphered" segment, which resulted from a (now former) Sub Pop employee's reaction to one-too-many journalists bugging them for the inside scoop on this until-now largely ignored music scene. Slang terms were made up on the spot by said employee and sure enough the story ran in papers across the country. :) The "meanings" of fake words such as "Cob Nobbler" and "Lamestein," and roughly two dozen more improvised fake words were triumphantly heralded by the New York Times, while the denizens of Seattle enjoyed a good laugh amidst the whirlwind marketing that threatened to consume their hometown. You may have read it in your local paper. They'll print anything if they think it sells. The crowd was howling.

Steve Fisk's (producer) metaphor for the major label A&R feeding frenzy that ensued was equally amusing, describing them as Baby Huey who waddled into a town ("Athens!") and sat town in the middle of it, squashing three bands by accident, then buys a lot of lunches and looks around. "What's going on over there?... Oh, Minneapolis!" Waddles over and sits down. Crushes three more bands in the process. Repeat. The over-reaction to Seattle's music was probably summed up best very early on in the film (and quite tersely at that) by Art Chantry, a local graphic designer who made hundreds of show fliers for virtually unknown bands during that period that later became collector's items, if for no other reason than they had "Seattle" printed on them. At least twice we are treated to his logically indifferent opinion of their monetary worth as he quickly and neatly slices them in two with a paper cutter. "Pay attention kids -- hundreds of dollars!" *SLASH* It must be seen to be appreciated and to really get the point.

Afterwards you can't help but feel that some subjects were touched upon too lightly, but maybe there was a reason for that. As the makers explained it took a long time to build the trust that was needed for this project to become a reality. It suddenly made you understand why this film almost didn't get made -- because those who made the scene were tired of all the crap and just wanted to let things be. But in my opinion they did an excellent job with what they were given. As I said before, some wounds need not be reopened...

On October 1, 1996 the soundtrack to Hype! was released, fittingly, on Sub Pop, and it is an excellent compilation that reflects the feel of the film and the Seattle scene at large. Most of the music from the film is represented here, in order, and the only notable exceptions are the first ever performance of Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit" and the absolutely wonderful live version of Soundgarden's "Searching With My Good Eye Closed." And there are a few tracks on the record that do not appear in the film, but as the producers of the soundtrack say, "What fun is history if you can't rewrite it?" :) If Hype! does make it to your town and you consider yourself a fan of Seattle music at large (and not just Pearl Jam) do yourself a favor and see this film. It was also released on video and can be easily found at any movie or record store.

And make sure you watch all the way through the end credits... ;)

© 1996 Chris Mansfield

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