1991: The Year Punk Broke

Be forewarned: in the coming months, you will no doubt grow sick of hearing about what happened 20 years ago, specifically, the release of the second album by a certain three-piece band from Aberdeen, Washington. Yes, this year marks the 20th anniversary of the release of Nevermind, which will be getting the super-deluxe reissue-repackage treatment later this month. And while the thought of an album having a dramatic impact on the music industry seems more and more foreign as we move deeper into the digital age, for those of us old enough to remember the days before Nirvana, it really did make a seismic shift in the kind of music that was considered commercially viable.

As such, the title to director Dave Markey’s film from 1992 (the year of its theatrical released), 1991: The Year Punk Broke, would suggest a serious attempt at documenting this musical turning point. Truth is, though, the movie was never intended to be anything other than a tour video for Sonic Youth, and the title was simply an inside joke in reference to Motley Crue’s inclusion of “Anarchy in the UK” in their live set. But as fate would have it, Sonic Youth brought Nirvana along for their 1991 summer European tour, and Markey was able to capture the burgeoning band playing in front of gigantic festival audiences before the release of Nevermind. By the time the film hit theaters, Nevermind was well on its way to selling million of copies, and the movie’s title had become prophetic, even though the grunge that soon blanketed the airwaves was as much mid-70s stoner rock as it was punk.

But while the film is largely comprised of the backstage hijinks the members of Sonic Youth, Nirvana and other bands (Mudhoney, Babes in Toyland, Gumball, Dinosaur Jr.) joining them at various points on the tour devised to amuse themselves, the film does possess some powerful footage. Beginning with an opening shot of a sea of undulating bodies in the audience, Markey manages to show that indeed there was something in the air, whether that was his attention or not. Of course, the movie is finally receiving a DVD release to coincide with the Nevermind anniversary, and the footage of Nirvana is particularly riveting. The band appears to be thoroughly enjoying playing for the big crowds, even while bashing their equipment. It’s also a revelation to see Kurt Cobain laughing and goofing around, like when he plays the part of Kevin Costner in a re-enactment of a scene from Madonna’s Truth Or Dare (a reoccurring theme in the film).

But it is the performances that lend the film whatever gravitas it may have. The cumulative effect of watching Nirvana doing “Negative Creep,” Dinosaur Jr’s take of “The Wagon,” which is a pleasant reminder that J Mascis was once actually kind of animated onstage, and Sonic Youth’s “Dirty Boots” is to hear the changing of the guard. The defining characteristics of the alt-rock takeover of the early ’90s were volume and noise, as if this generation was literally shouting to be heard. While Nirvana may have unfortunately paved the way for posers like Stone Temple Pilots and Candlebox, they also ultimately allowed the peers like those appearing with them here to have a lasting impact for many years, and that was perhaps the real breakthrough.
Stephen Slaybaugh