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DVD Review — 1991: The Year Punk Broke

DVD Review — 1991: The Year Punk Broke

By Glenn McDonald 

Release Date: Tuesday, Sept. 6

SRP: $19.99

running time: 160 minutes total

In the fascinating documentary and time capsule 1991: The Year Punk Broke, Sonic Youth frontman Thurston Moore walks up to a pack of European hipster teens and asks them what they think about the current state of punk rock. As the confused teenagers smile and joke around in broad German accents, Moore cuts to the chase:

“I think we should destroy the bogus capitalist process that is destroying youth culture by mass marketing and commercial paranoia behavior control. Do you not agree?”

Man, I forgot we used to talk like that.

Filmed over two weeks on Sonic Youth’s first headlining European festival tour, 1991: The Year Punk Broke features performances and backstage antics from Sonic Youth and tour mates such as Dinosaur Jr., Babes in Toyland and Mudhoney. Oh, also a little band called Nirvana, who one month later would release a little album called Nevermind.

The doc was directed and edited by filmmaker Dave Markey, who accompanied the band on tour and compiled the film in true DIY style. The film has finally been released to DVD this week, with restored video and remastered audio in uncompressed PCM stereo, plus a handful of extras. 

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For those of us who lived through the era, the early-1990s music scene had a very specific energy. What used to be termed “college rock” was quickly morphing into the cultural and commercial force labeled “alternative music.”

The Year Punk Broke captures the uneasy moments when that wave was starting to crest.

“When we first came over here [on a previous tour], we were lucky to get 100 people in a club,” Moore observes during one stop on the giant festival tour. “And now we’re spoiled brats. Our audience is expanding and my mind is turning into a fine, gelatinous ball of pepper.”

Moore says a lot of stuff like this as the film progresses. Clearly torn between his assumed identity as slacker king, and his desire to step up as ringleader of the revolution (or at least the movie), he spends a good amount of time spouting ironic declarations of independence. No one seems sure if he’s serious, least of all Moore himself.

At any rate, many of his tour mates chime in with similar sentiments – especially the Nirvana boys. As the title suggests, The Year Punk Broke is awash in ambivalent feelings about music, marketing and Making It Big.

In fact, several passages recall the cryptically facetious ramblings of Bob Dylan and his cronies in the classic 1967 doc Don’t Look Back. I’ll bet an enterprising film student could get a thesis out of this. Two entourages of defiant hipsters navigating the weird world of fame, 25 years apart. 

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If much of the backstage rhetoric is disposable, the onstage material is invaluable. Sonic Youth gets the most songs into rotation, including “Dirty Boots,” “Schizophrenia,” “Expressway To Yr. Skull” and a fierce version of “Teenage Riot.”

Watch Sonic Youth perform “Schizophrenia” as seen in the film. 

Onstage, Sonic Youth proves its reputation as a formidable and dexterous live band. Several moments here demonstrate their particular specialty: The song builds and breaks into a cacophonous crescendo, then out of the haze the groove kicks back in, everyone in the pocket and totally on point. How do they do that?

Nirvana makes a real progression in the film. Their initial sets are a mess of hardcore nonsense and literal destruction. Kurt Cobain smashes his guitars, tackles his amps and seems to spend half of each set facedown on the stage. As the tour rolls along, though, we see the band slowly but surely finding its footing (literally) and are treated to a raw, early version of “Smells Like Teen Spirit.”

Other highlights include Dinosaur Jr.’s “Freak Scene,” Babes in Toyland on “Dustcake Boy” and a special appearance by punk godfathers, The Ramones.

The film’s musical peak comes near the end, a back-to-back pairing of Nirvana’s “Polly” with Sonic Youth’s ferocious “Kool Thing.”

More than anything else in the film, these are the sequences that pack an emotional charge. Playing “Kool Thing,” Sonic Youth takes the song right to the edge of chaos, then reels it all back in, with bassist Kim Gordon proving yet again that she may be the single coolest rock star on the planet.

And of course, watching Cobain sing the very dark, very beautiful “Polly” is pretty devastating. By far the film’s quietest song, “Polly” is a deep breath in an otherwise hyperventilating movie. Meanwhile, editor/director Markey effectively cuts between onstage material and footage of the band members wandering the weirder streets of Europe, looking young and lost and amazed. 

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Visually, Markey employs most of the tricks and tropes of early-1990s alternative rock videos. The images cut back and forth between blown-out color footage and grainy black-and-white video. The editing is quick and relentless, with cuts often matching the relative velocity of the song.

A few sequences evoke interesting psychedelic effects, but for the most part the visual style is pure ’90s DIY; the motion picture equivalent of those fanzine collage covers — lots of energy, little coherence.

The stereo surround sound is entirely adequate, if unspectacular. Very few of the musical sequences are truly “live” — they’re usually visuals cut together from various shows to a single live audio track. The engineers have clearly done what they can, but it’s likely these shows didn’t sound all that great to begin with.

The DVD extras include the 40-minute short film (This Is Known As) The Blues Scale – essentially a series of outtakes with footage of Sonic Youth performing “White Kross,” “Eric’s Trip,” “Chapel Hill” and “Inhuman,” plus a Nirvana performance of “In Bloom.”

Also packaged in are some separate rough cuts, the original movie trailer, and “Broken Punk,” a relatively disposable 2003 panel discussion with director Markey, Sonic Youth’s Moore, Steve Shelley and Lee Ranaldo, and Dinosaur Jr.’s J. Mascis.

In the realm of rock docs, The Year Punk Broke is a minimalist gem. Ironically, despite all the punk rock banner waving, it doesn’t wander far from the traditional form: onstage footage, backstage shenanigans and the occasional candid moment.

That simplicity is also the film’s strength, though, especially when capturing the energy of the bands in performance, and the ambivalence of the performers offstage. The Year Punk Broke is a fun look back at the strange climate of the early-’90s alternative nation. 

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