There’s an image in Doug Pray’s documentary “Hype!” that just won’t go away.
Picture it in your mind: You’re standing on the floor of an upscale clothing store, surrounded by mannequins wearing the very latest in “grunge” fashion - you know, flannel shirts, oversized T-shirts, Doc Martens, etc.
And as Pray’s camera captures this strange sight, a Muzak version of a certain song begins to play. It takes a second for you to realize that the song is none other than Nirvana’s grunge anthem, “Smells Like Teen Spirit.”
The jarring visual is enough to make you scream. Or guffaw. Whichever you do is likely to depend on your disposition, if not your age.
Because if you have any perspective on human behavior at all, you realize that American culture is one that obsessively follows and, in most cases, co-opts the trends and styles of its youth. Youthful rebellion, the very essence of rejecting the status quo, becomes the very essence of mainstream marketing decisions.
When was the last time you saw James Dean’s likeness on something priced to move?
This cultural mandate is nothing new. It merely plays out in ways that reflect the different times and places where it occurs.
Pray’s film studies how the process occurred during the early 1990s in Seattle, and how it affected not only the groups involved - Nirvana but also such others as Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, Alice in Chains and more - but how the trend-hungry media exploited those groups even as they helped their careers.
Most of all, it shows how the media didn’t just get the story wrong but told the story it wanted regardless of the truth.
Pray, a Los Angeles director wannabe, got involved with the Seattle music scene after having directed a couple of music videos. When producer Steve Helvey suggested they make a documentary on the Seattle groups Pray was working with, the duo started doing interviews.
And they discovered a vitality only hinted at behind headlines that claimed Seattle to be “to rock ‘n’ roll what Bethlehem was to Christianity.”
From Bellingham bowling alleys to Seattle’s Rainbow Tavern, the area’s incestuous scene had developed since circa 1980 into a tightly knit community largely because popular groups seldom stopped there.
Pray interviews such witnesses as photographer Charles Peterson, graphic artist Art Chantry, record producer Jack Endino, record-label owners Jonathan Poneman and Bruce Pavitt and others to show how things gradually changed.
It was Poneman and Pavitt, for example, who used their Sub Pop label with their sense of humor well intact to push a number of minor bands into prominence. And Pray effectively uses concert footage to underscore what the witnesses have to say.
But the real change occurred in 1991 when a little trio from Aberdeen, Wash., with its scraggly-haired and supremely talented lead singer, cut a series of tunes. Ultimately, with the release of million-selling “Nevermind,” Nirvana and Kurt Cobain became the stuff of rock legend.
And, as one observer notes, the music industry followed in Nirvana’s wake like an industry-strength Baby Huey, crushing three bands when it sat down and signing all the others to lucrative contracts.
Behind the attention and ready money, of course, there was the down side. The heroin use, for example. And the well-publicized suicide of Nirvana’s Cobain.
But Pray’s study isn’t meant as a serious indictment, not of greed nor of the mainstream culture as a whole. He uses too much humor for that.
In the end, with miles of film footage portraying everything from the tree-shadowed Cascades to Nirvana’s first public performance of “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” “Hype!” remains an edifying, enjoyable and ultimately light-hearted look at the way that things have always gone.
Someone hums a new tune, someone else decides he can make money from it, exploitation occurs, everyone get tired of humming the same tune and then someone else begins humming.
Really, now, could it be any other way?
, DataTimes MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: “Hype!” *** Locations: North Division cinemas Credits: Directed by Doug Prey, produced by Steve Helvey, starring a range of Seattle musical personalities from Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam to Sub Pop Records coowners Jonathan Poneman and Bruce Pavitt Running time: 1:25 Rating: Not rated (but equivalent to at least a PG-13 for language)