Hype! is an early '90s documentary focusing on the music in Seattle, and...hey! Quit it! I can see your little mouse arrow racing towards the X at the upper-righthand corner of the screen, but Hype! isn't some inane, laughably dated love letter to grunge. It's an enormously entertaining documentary about a city teeming with musicians who play purely for passion, including a small subset whose proximity and vaguely similar sound shone the spotlight on Seattle for a couple of years.
First of all, I should probably admit to never having gotten caught up in grunge. My Sub Pop collection is limited to a bunch of CDs by Velocity Girl (who are from that other Washington) and some David Cross comedy albums. Of the many, many bands featured in this documentary, the only one I've followed with any particular interest is the Young Fresh Fellows, whose shamelessly infectious guitar-pop is about as far on the other end of the sonic spectrum from the stereotypical Seattle sound. That's kind of the point, though. Seattle had a really burgeoning music scene, and it wasn't all flannel, angst, and distorted power chords. There were also the usual 3-chord punk-pop acts, quirk-rockers, various flavors of metal, and whatever else you want to rattle off from the Big Book of Genres. Hype! takes a well-deserved look at that variety. Grunge is not surprisingly a pretty heavy topic of discussion, but it also covers how there got to be any sort of music scene at all in a fairly isolated, perpetually rainy city like Seattle (the answer? 'cause it's a fairly isolated, perpetually rainy city). It follows Seattle from the days when there were only a couple of clubs, back when a band could only have been together long enough to rehearse two or three times and still be able to line up a show. Appearances on magazine covers and lunchboxes were never really in any anyone's mind, and these bands frequently didn't stay together long, continually splintering off into so many different groups that Seattle's music scene wove an intricately complex, almost incestuous web of musicians. Hype! shows how Sub Pop Records' unique marketing strategy started to turn the world's attention towards the Pacific Northwest and how Nirvana became an unlikely breakout success, eclipsing some of the more established local bands everyone seemed to think were destined to hit it big.
Even though the music of Seattle was driven by passion, the bands never seemed to take themselves too seriously. It wasn't about musical precision or technical proficiency, but putting on a show for your friends by beating the living hell out of an electric guitar. Y'know, here we are now, entertainers. One of the things I liked the most about Hype! is that sort of smirking sense of humor of the people being interviewed, who have grown deeply cynical by the awe and ineptitude of the music industry that swept into the city, shilling ridiculously overpriced "grunge" clothing in fashion magazines, signing bands who had barely played out with half-million dollar advances, watching other groups move up shop from California to Seattle in the hopes of getting a record deal, and joining the press in getting duped by sarcastic responses from interviewees who'd quickly tired of being asked the same repetitive, mindless questions over and over again. It also shows the frustration felt when long-established bands continued to be ignored, other groups undeservedly getting compartmentalized into the narrow definition of 'the Seattle sound', and the struggle for up-and-coming bands who couldn't land a gig in this topsy turvy, newly-oversaturated market. That sense of personality, from the people being interviewed to the photography to the setting of the city itself (there's a reason David Lynch made a TV series set in this neck of the woods), is part of what makes Hype! such a blast to watch.
Rather than weave together some bland story through a series of droning voiceovers, Hype! is told by the bands behind the fabulous sounds of the Pacific Northwest and the men who loved music enough to form their own record labels to distribute it. Among the musicians interviewed are members of Coffin Break, Dead Moon, The Fastbacks, Gas Huffer, Hovercraft, The Melvins, The Monomen, Mudhoney, Pearl Jam, Screaming Trees, Seaweed, 7 Year Bitch, Soundgarden, Stomach Pump, The Supersuckers, Tad, The Walkabouts, and The Young Fresh Fellows. Also interviewed are people like photographer Charles Peterson, graphic designer Art Chantry, promoter Mike Vraney (hey, Something Weird!), local music critic Dawn Anderson, various record label employees (including Megan Jasper, the woman behind the Lexicon of Grunge hoax in the New York Times), a small army of producers (Jack Endino, Steve Fisk, Martin Rushent, and Conrad Uno), and the founders of labels like Sub Pop, K Records, eMpTy Records, C/Z Records, Estrus Records, and Pop Llama.
But hey...! A documentary focusing on music is obviously going to need some...y'know...music, and Hype! features live performances from a slew of different bands: Blood Circus, Coffin Break, Crackerbash, Dead Moon, The Fastbacks, Flop, Gas Huffer, Girl Trouble, The Gits, Hammerbox, Love Battery, The Melvins, The Monomen, Mudhoney, Nirvana (performing "Smells Like Teen Spirit" live for the first time), The Posies, Seaweed, 7 Year Bitch, Some Velvet Sidewalk, Soundgarden, The Supersuckers, The U-Men, The Young Fresh Fellows, and Zipgun. The last performance in the movie is from Pearl Jam, and in the spirit of the rest of the movie, they're not standing aloof in the round in a packed coliseum somewhere, but in a kind of dingy little space, joined by numerous members of various other local bands. The movie's not a document of a few bands' meteoric rise up the Soundscan charts, but a look at a city with a deep and abiding love for music. Hype! is highly recommended to readers with a similar mindset, regardless of whether or not their closets were overflowing with flannel twelve years ago.
Video: Despite not being enhanced for widescreen displays, the 1.66:1 letterboxed image looks pretty good. It's obviously a 16mm production, but it's still reasonably sharp and detailed, with only some of the more dimly-lit performance footage (particularly when the camera's pointed squarely at the audience) seeming particularly grainy or noisy. A couple of small scattered sections, more noticeably in the first reel than anywhere else in the movie, are a bit on the dusty side too. Colors sometimes take on that dingy, timeless 16mm look where they seem like they could've been shot anytime between 1979 and last Arbor Day, but they mostly seem passable, and black levels look pretty solid. Other than the lack of 16x9 enhancement, I don't have any major complaints.
Audio: Hype! is probably the single best sounding documentary I own. Even setting all the performance footage aside for a sec, some of the interviews have localized sounds like birds chirping in one rear speaker, a passing car panning across the front mains, and assorted other sonic wackiness. Someone with an eye, an ear, or some other sensory organ for detail clearly put a lot of effort into making this mix sound as great as possible. The music is obviously a primary focus, and the live performances come through really well. For the most part, the bulk of the instrumentation is anchored in the center speaker, bolstered by waves of distortion in the front mains. The surround channels mostly offer a bit of reverb, and the subwoofer (especially when Soundgarden takes the stage) serves up a sometimes hellish amount of bass. The DVD includes several different ways to listen to Hype! -- DTS, Dolby Digital 5.1, and a 2.0 surround track, with optional English subtitles and closed captions.
Supplements: Director/editor Doug Pray and producer Steve Helver are paired together for a commentary track that gives some inkling how much of an undertaking it is to assemble a feature-length documentary. They detail how Seattle's cynical response to the media barrage almost made the project not happen, the logistics of shooting 20 bands in 5 nights with 3 money-gobbling cameras, how quickly debt racked up, the clearance nightmare of showing so many shots of magazines and clips from TV shows, walking the fine line of including popular acts without overshadowing the rest of the scene, learning tricks from one of the editors of The Decline of Western Civilization, bringing a writer into the editing room to help structure the movie, explaining why a kid has earplugs in his nose, deciding how, if at all, to deal with Mia Zapata's brutal murder, and...wow, that's a really long sentence. Anyway, it's a great commentary and is worth a listen.
Not only does Doug Pray serve up audio commentary for the movie itself, but he contributes commentary to pretty much everything on this DVD, beginning with nearly twenty minutes of outtakes. They include a selection of mostly sarcastic random quotes, Megan Jasper chatting about pranks and how Mudhoney threw a shitfit in the wake of G.G. Allin's death, Art Chantry talking about Seattle's poster scene, Tad brilliantly rambling, and Leighton Beezer musing on the progression of music in Seattle. Pray's commentary makes it sound like none of this should be taken all that seriously.
Four additional performances have also been included -- Mudhoney covering "Dicks Hate the Police", The Supersuckers' "Coattail Rider", Pond's "Rock Collection" and, following an interview with 7 Year Bitch, The Gits' "Here's to Your Fuck". All four are letterboxed and sport Dolby Digital 2.0 audio. Optional audio commentary is also offered, and although Doug Pray's comments don't run the entire length of each performance, he explains why these songs were chosen for the outtakes and gives a little behind-the-scenes info on each of 'em.
"Hate" creator Peter Bagge's artwork is featured throughout Hype!, and he's featured in a three and a half minute interview where he talks briefly about underground comics and the self-deprecatory, autobiographical humor of their creators. Pray's optional audio commentary delves into the interview's relevance into the overall story and the difficulty fitting it into the narrative of the documentary. One of the topics he covers is a fully-animated "Hate" cartoon that was originally going to be released as part of Hype!, and although that didn't pan out, the four-minute animated short is provided on this DVD and really complements the documentary.
A bunch of trailers are also tacked on. Hype! is divided into sixteen chapters and sports a set of nicely-designed 4x3 animated menus.
Conclusion: Hype! is a great documentary with an appeal more widespread than to just flannel-clad throwbacks who haven't bought a CD since 1993. Great doc, a slew of worthwhile extras, and a very low sticker price (it's available online for less than eight bucks shipped) make this a DVD worth adding to the collection of anyone with a love for rock. Highly Recommended.