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Seattle Without the Clouds

Beneath all the angst and gloom of the grunge scene is a much sillier culture, captured in a film that doesn't take itself seriously.

December 01, 1996|Tim Appelo | Tim Appelo, film critic for the Oregonian in Portland, covered the grunge years for Entertainment Weekly and edited the 1970s Seattle music magazine the Weekly's Sounds

SEATTLE — Everyone knows what the Seattle Scene stands for: grim, plaid-clad hairy lads thick as timber howling against the wet Chinook wind until they O.D., clutching a Starbucks cup and a seven-figure record contract.

"Yeah, Seattle's full of heroin and rain--that's the imagery you get," says Doug Pray, whose cheeky new rock documentary "Hype!" helps blow that gloomy imagery away with bracing gusts of rueful laughter.

Pray always knew better than to buy the dolorous myth of the big grunge music scare of the early '90s, because long before he got his master of fine arts degree in film from UCLA, he was best friends with Jim Sangster of the breakthrough Seattle band the Young Fresh Fellows. Pray directed several Fellows videos and was thoroughly acquainted with the wacky, almost angst-free scene of this band, which critic Bill Wyman once described as "the rock 'n' roll equivalent of a whoopee cushion at a debutante ball."

"I had never witnessed such completely non-self-conscious and unabashed fun as they were having in Seattle," Pray says. "What was distinctive was the self-deprecating friendly character in the Northwest. And all the cup throwing!" When Seattle audiences feel the band onstage is too drunk to play properly, the custom is to teasingly pelt them with paper beer cups.

"In New York and L.A., they had that whole thing of wearing black and wondering who was cooler, the band or the audience," Pray says. The grunge fashion statement was to defy the very idea of coolness itself; its quintessential garment was not the plaid shirt but the Zit Pants worn by the Thrown Ups--garbage-bag sweatpants that, when squeezed, splattered the audience with shaving cream. In Seattle rock, everybody was in it together, and boy, was it a sticky mess.

"I'm struck by how funny the movie is," says Pray's UCLA classmate and producer, Steve Helvey, "and how much fun they're having in the Seattle rock scene making fun of all this attention. They weren't sitting at home brooding."

*

All hype aside, Seattle rock really was touchingly devoted to the good of the group and the protection of its pioneer artistic integrity against the horrid bourgeois boredom of Seattle's revoltingly touted "livability" (the Young Fresh Fellows' first album advertised a tune called "I Fought the Lawn") and the menace of inauthentic mass pop culture. This was what attracted Cameron Crowe to make his film "Singles" there. "I was coming out of a hollow period," Crowe recalled. "My father had died, and I realized most of my friends [in L.A.] are really acquaintances. When I'd tell them my dad had died, they'd go, 'Tough break! Now what do you think of my screenplay?' The Seattle scene--non-L.A., non-journalist, non-movie-type people--I thought, these are the people I wish I'd grown up with."

Pray knew that Seattle in 1991 would not eagerly embrace Hollywood filmmakers. "Steve said, 'Wait a minute, there's this huge phenomenon, the most over-documented rock scene in rock history. Why isn't there a documentary about it?' I fought him at first. I mean, Seattle is the cynical capital of the world in terms of anti-media feelings. Even if the hype hadn't happened, there's a very supermodest character to the region, so nobody toots their horn there--literally. You do not honk your horn in Seattle. Go to New York or L.A. if you want to do that."

The sight of someone who might espouse non-Seattle values is an exception to the no-honking rule. "Every time I see a car on the freeway with California plates, I almost crash," Kurt Cobain's old roommate, Matt Lukin of the band Mudhoney, once explained, "because I'm honking and flipping them off."

Still, Pray made the perilous trek from L.A. to Seattle in 1992, for a good, honest slacker reason. "I'd graduated from film school, so I was sort of desperately unemployed." His Seattle contacts (including the local co-producer of "Hype!," Lisa Dutton) won him a grudging hearing from Seattle's surly xenophobes. "Seattle was a big castle with a sign saying, 'Stay out!' and we got in the back gate, hiding under a hay wagon with the chickens and pigs," Pray says.

"I called people and said, 'Look, we're not going to do this movie. But if we were gonna do a movie about the Seattle scene, I mean, is there room for it?' Steve Fisk [a major Northwest record producer] went into an hourlong diatribe against Penelope Spheeris and what she did to punk rock [in her "The Decline and Fall of Western Civilization" rockumentaries] and how she kind of used it. I thought, these people are so skeptical and so angry--this is kind of getting interesting. I'm beginning to like this."

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