“Hype!” is a remarkable first film for L.A.-based director Doug Pray. An impressively even-handed documentary on the Seattle music scene begun in 1992 and completed four years later, it’s a brilliant synthesis of social anthropology and entertainment. For those whose knowledge of the Northwest music scene begins and ends with Nirvana, “Hype!” is an excellent introduction to the roiling subculture that produced that late, great band.
With the exception of Pearl Jam and Soundgarden, the 23 Seattle groups showcased in the film are largely unknown, yet almost all are eminently watchable. Pray captured some terrific performances in his film, which also includes rare, recently discovered footage from 1991 of Nirvana performing its signature song, “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” for the first time. It’s a big musical moment.
However, “Hype!” is ultimately not about music; rather, it’s a somber meditation on the dark underbelly of capitalism. The freedom that made it possible for the Seattle scene to grow is the same freedom that allowed it to be plundered, and the plundering that’s occurred there during the past five years is what Pray set out to chronicle.
Structured in the standard “rockumentary” form that alternates performance footage with talking head interviews, “Hype!” derives much of its charm from the wonderfully likable bunch of goofballs Pray elected to interview. Talk about a motley crew! These are some of the worst-dressed people you’re likely to see in a film this year, or any year, yet they all deliver beautifully articulated, trenchant observations. Apparently you have more time to think when you’re not worrying about making fashion statements.
Seattle’s is a very young scene (even the handful of participants in their 30s favor the dress and demeanor of nerdy 15-year-olds), and as such, it has the strengths of youth--namely idealism, enthusiasm and irreverence. One deduces that the reason this scene was so vibrant in its infancy was because early on nobody gave a damn because nobody had anything to lose. Chaos and silliness reigned supreme then, and the unspoken creed seemed to be that the show wasn’t over until the hall was in shambles. The chaos was benign in those days, and the community was a close-knit one with everybody on equal footing.
With the meteoric rise of Nirvana in 1991 that all changed, of course. In getting to know the scene that played a role in shaping that group’s front man, Kurt Cobain, one gets a glimmer of insight into the intense ambivalence about stardom said to have contributed to his suicide in 1994. Reiterated repeatedly in “Hype!” are the radical notions that not every American wants to be rich and famous, and that the musicians in Seattle were infinitely happier before their scene was “discovered.”
That “discovery” meant Seattle was devoured by the popular press ever on the lookout for the next big thing, and invaded by record company men who unleashed a torrent of money into the scene. What else could come next but heroin--yes, that came too, and when heroin shows up playtime is over. By the close of the film, you get the sense that the hard-core music lovers who launched the Seattle scene will carry on bloodied but unbowed, but the story in “Hype!” is nonetheless not a pretty one.
One takes a modicum of comfort, however, in the knowledge that it’s simply a reflection of the way cultural energy works when it comes to music. Vital underground music scenes are the result of a somewhat random, roving convergence of forces, and it’s easy to list the cities this force has passed through--in the past 20 years alone, we’ve seen it happen in Athens, Austin, Minneapolis and L.A., to name a few. “Hype!” suggests that the storm has begun to subside in Seattle, so it may be heading to your town soon.
* Unrated. Times guidelines: frequent use of profanity.
A Helvey/Pray production, released by Cinepix Film Properties. Director Doug Pray. Producer Steven Helvey. Cinematographer Robert Bennett. Editors Pray and Joan Zapata. Running time: 1 hour, 24 minutes.
* At selected theaters throughout Southern California.