Doug Pray’s “Hype!”

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Doug Pray’s Hype! captures vividly a space of about eighteen years in the Seattle music scene, from it’s beginnings in the grungy music basements of bands like Gas Huffer and The Blunt Objects to it’s eventual mass-market  exploitation, through to it’s own stylized clothing line – “Save $ on kid’s grunge, too!” When this topic is brought up, the film cuts to an in-line interview with Jeff Ament from the front of his porch, nostrils plugged up, who responds – “More than anything else, I just think it’s funny. We wear long johns ’cause it’s fuckin’ cold!”

Hype! is the first in Doug Pray’s subculture-examining line of documentaries, followed by Scratch in 2001, and most recently with Surfwise just last year. And,  given how the boom had only just died down previously, it seems to be his most potent – at the time, many of the bands featured were still playing the local rounds. Yet, most of them still seem to cast a doleful eye on the ‘time before’ – before Sub-Pop Records and Steve Fisk. The scene was chaotic, but it was a benign chaos – there was a close-knit quality to it all, with this guy playing for our band, but he used to play for that band, and check out these cassettes. Hey, why don’t you go up there in a dress?

I remember the same things about my brother’s band, back around the same time. We weren’t in Seattle, but Fort Worth, and there’s still a box of their old cassettes lying around, marked Rectal Agitation S.1 – 4. One of them, Steve, actually used to make a regular habit of going up in drag, and while there was a main set of ‘regulars,’ drummers used to come and go like day and night. A lot of the recording was done in his bedroom, yelling into a single microphone set up on his dresser and then relaying the tracks over each other, later on – and, it’s that do-it-yourselfism that seemed to typify the Seattle scene, early on, as well. The lead-man from The SuperSuckers puts it aptly – “That was the whole lesson we learned when we moved up here – just do it. We saw other bands no different than us just putting out records, zines –you know– a radio show, their own label, plus live shows.”

And, aside from the bands, the film also finds Niles Bernstein and Steve Fisk of Sub-Pop Records, the guys at whose feet the credit (blame?) lies, and their interviews – in front of a skyscraper – are probably the most telling: “Well, Seattle was really lame, specifically in the early ’80s; it was like a million second cities. It had a fake Talking Heads, Pere Ubu, Killing Joke, all the fake Ramones you could shake a stick at, and, you know, people from Bellevue singing with English accents.”

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Unavoidably, the film’s – and the movement’s – climax seems to come around the time that Kurt Cobain’s name is mentioned, against a grainy back-set video of their first live performance of “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” Released only a year after Cobain’s suicide, the film doesn’t really attempt to serve as any sort of eulogy, but instead places his death at the pinnacle of the scene. A more personal attention is also paid earlier on to the death of Mia Zapata, lead singer of local band The Gits, who was murdered during the film’s three year-long production, in 1993. Pray says in an interview, some ten years on:

“I had some really great interview material talking about that death and the impact of that death on the community … it simply didn’t work in the movie. The movie was about this music community then all of a sudden took a left turn and for ten minutes went into this whole other equally interesting but totally different type of movie. I got really frustrated and I talked to the band. The band basically felt like we should just ignore it and basically let the Gits be seen in all their glory and let her sing, but not go into this whole other thing. We ended up giving footage to Unsolved Mysteries and they did a big piece on it. It’s just something that no matter how we would have played it, we would have been in trouble. If we had put it in the movie it would have felt exploitive when really her death had nothing to do with the media and the hype, whereas Cobain’s death seemed inextricably tied to the idea of the price of success.”

In the end, I think the film works best as a sort of cautionary tale, and it’s particularly potent now, here in Dallas – when what’s being called the “Dallas Sound” is not the legitimate bands from places like Deep Ellum but self-admitted shills, with names like Broken Social Scene or any variation on Death blank For blank. These are bands that make it it their mantra to cater, whose sound is uniform and monotonous and unselective and jesus-christ-they-are-mindnumbing. Even some of the band-members themselves seem to be aware; Luis Debuc, of The Secret Handshake, laments in an interview with Dallas Observer:

“It’s just a different game…I’m not trying to slam the other bands—I’m friends with them and they’re all great guys—but there’s another side to it all, where it’s all about making money and pandering to the young kids. It’s not about the music.”

And, so on.

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