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Beer-Soaked Lambs 

Hype! surpasses its title

Wednesday, Nov 20 1996
The week before the election, I spoke to a friend who had just returned from Kansas -- Lawrence, not Russell -- where he and his wife were invited to the house of America's crank laureate. He says that William Burroughs was showing him around his back yard, pointing at goldfish ponds and offering him tea, while Allen Ginsberg jumped around snapping photos of his wife. That was strange enough. But suddenly, in the middle of a rant about carcinogens, Burroughs leaned into my friend's ear and said this loud non sequitur: "Clinton is better than Dole."

It's the way I feel about Pearl Jam vs. REO Speedwagon. Crabby denizens of the gray area forget: We are better off than we were 10 years ago. Remember when the United States had a president who could not carry on a simple conversation, the radio was jammed with Journey, and teen-age girls who dressed simply and wore big boots were ridiculed into the submission of big hair and uncomfortable shoes?

Something had to give. I got kind of patriotic at the moment in Steve Helvey and Doug Pray's documentary Hype! when the camera pans up a Billboard chart, past Ozzy Osbourne and Bonnie Raitt and Natalie Cole and Hammer and stops cold at Nirvana in the No. 1 slot. They didn't get there through an entirely bloodless revolution. The film focuses on the beer-drinking sacrificial lambs of Seattle and the friendly, innocent lives they were forced to give up to change the world for the rest of us.

Hype! is as artless and unpretentious as its scrappy Sub Pop-produced motion picture soundtrack, hearing out obvious scenesters like Sub Pop founders Bruce Pavitt and Jonathan Poneman, quietly eloquent producer Jack Endino, and designer Art Chantry, along with musicians from the iconic Eddie Vedder to never-weres like the Walkabouts. Since Seattle has always had as much of a penchant for yuks as it has for noise, this is a funny movie, loaded with self-deprecating humor and smart, good-natured goofs. At one point, the kind but sullen Vedder points out, "That's one of the great things about a lot of the bands here. Great humor. So I'm obviously not from here."

The constant comedy, combined with Pray's rhythmic narrative structure, will open the film up to a general audience. But it's still a geek's paradise, showing Fastback Kurt Bloch recording the band Flop at the mythic Egg Studios, riding along with smiling Sub Pop publicist Nils Bernstein as he gives a tour of the city from the back of Young Fresh Fellow Jim Sangster's Jeep, and swooping in on Chantry's studio to watch him hack up valuable vintage show posters with a paper cutter as a Fuck You to history. As Gas Huffer debate whether so-and-so from Love Battery ever played in a band called Butt Sweat, the singer, Matt, rolls his eyes and looks at the camera to say, "Remember friends, this is only a movie. You're free to leave the theater at any time."

Over and over, Hype! answers Andy Rooney's question (from his infamous, tasteless anti-obituary for Kurt Cobain on 60 Minutes): "Are they contributing anything to the world they're taking so much from?" The gift of grunge is handing the punk DIY ethic to the public at large. The thread running through so many interviews here is that participating in one's culture requires nothing more than wanting to. Calvin Johnson of K Records calls DIY "a given" in the Northwest: "They don't sit around going, 'Oh, nothing ever happens here. Nothing ever goes on here.' By the time the kid's out of high school, he's already been in a band, put out a couple of fanzines, recorded a few records, started a label, did a radio show."

That some of those kids became millionaires doing just that is the story Hype! tells. I'm with Chantry, who calls the grunge cataclysm "healthy." The film ends with the stark admonition, "YOUR TOWN IS NEXT." We should be so lucky.

About The Author

Sarah Vowell


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