MOVIE REVIEW : ‘The Year Punk Broke’: Goofballs on Parade

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The music documentary “1991: The Year Punk Broke” (opening tonight at the Nuart as the theater’s Fridays-at-midnight feature) captures the popular alternative bands Sonic Youth and Nirvana on a two-week tour of Europe, spreading dissonance through the Continent like Johnny Punkerseeds. Offstage they offer self-conscious, bohemian-wiseacre witticisms for the benefit of the camera, often at the expense of the locals.

It’s either the last stand of real, madcap rock ‘n’ roll personal rebellion, or else proof that smug grunge musicians can be prototypal “ugly Americans” overseas just as efficiently as their middle-class parents.

The music is often terrific, allowing that, being in the theater, you presumably already have a bent for the sort of unrelenting sound that (in Sonic Youth’s case, at least) doesn’t rely on traditional melodic hooks for its appeal. And director Dave Markey agreeably lets each of the 17 featured concert numbers--including songs from support acts such as Dinosaur Jr., Babes in Toyland and even the Ramones--run all the way through, albeit with seasick hand-held photography, artsy visual effects and frantic editing that may have even the faithful zoning out before the last squeal of feedback segues to applause.


But a love for the music won’t necessarily translate into affection for the personalities involved. And it doesn’t help that Sonic Youth frontman Thurston Moore is the only real protagonist here. Gripping a microphone and leading us through the streets of Europe in off moments of this not-so-magical mystery tour, Moore comes off as the most unreliably self-impressed of raconteurs, if not the world’s supreme twit. His idea of fun is to complain about the wacky German food, or to approach non-English-speaking, pre-teen-age girls on the street and obnoxiously pepper them with questions such as “Do you like indie funk swing?”

Only occasionally do things get put in the sort of context the film’s title suggests, as when Moore rhapsodizes on the irony of “modern punk--as seen in Elle magazine . . . Motley Crue singing ‘Anarchy in the U.K.’ ” Mostly, though, this is just an anecdotal blur of goofballs on parade, with Kim Gordon’s putting lipstick and mascara on Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain counting as an actual highlight.

Lack of a big picture aside, the movie never even answers any of the burning logistical questions that come to mind, such as: When Cobain ritually sticks his foot through a bass drum head in a strange city, is it hard to find replacement parts?