We've already witnessed the birth and assimilation into the mainstream of punk rock, beginning in the late 1970s and early 80s, and now comes what could be called a punk documentary. 1991: THE YEAR PUNK BROKE is the visual equivalent of a punk album: raw, fast, loud, sometimes incoherent
and defiantly uncommercial.
This film documents a tour of Europe in the summer of 1991 by New York music pioneers Sonic Youth, an increasingly popular outfit that combines avant-garde sound with the fury and attitude of punk. They perform about half of the film's songs, along with soon-to-be-huge Seattle grunge kings
Nirvana, female thrashers Babes in Toyland and the somewhat more traditional critical favorites Dinosaur Jr. The film features live performances intercut with backstage goofiness and "home movie"-type footage, much of it "narrated" or conducted by Sonic Youth guitarist Thurston Moore.
The movie is unlikely to win any new converts for Sonic Youth or the other bands. While the frenetic and disjointed camerawork suits much of this freeform, out-of-control music (the final audio/video blow-out that accompanies Sonic Youth's "Expressway to Your Skull" is a fitting climax), a whole
movie's worth of it may make viewers feel like they've been force-fed hallucinogens and strapped into a rollercoaster; no doubt the film works better on video, seen in small doses. Ironically, the one relatively staid scene is an interview excerpt from MTV, the music video monolith largely
responsible for mainstreaming quick-cut editing. The rest looks like it was shot by a hyperactive child and then edited with a buzzsaw. Obviously, director Dave Markey thinks his anti-film style complements his subject, but one wonders if any thought was given to how such a jagged, anarchic movie
would play to an audience.
Sonic Youth's music is miles away from the "punk" pioneered by bands like the Sex Pistols and the Clash back in the 70s; as jarring as those bands appeared at first, they did utilize traditional song structures and chords. Sonic Youth uses "open tunings" to produce droning, feedback-laden pieces
that can be structured into pounding, riff-based songs ("Kool Thing" and "Teenage Riot" are two of the film's more effective pieces) or out-and-out noise. They're not always easy to listen to, but they deserve credit for creating something genuinely new, even if it tends to degenerate into
feedback and noise for noise's sake.
Dinsosaur Jr. also uses punk and leader J. Mascis's impressive, frenzied guitar to put a spin on their songs; compared to the other bands in the movie, they're almost melodic. Nirvana, except for an unusually delicate rendition of "Polly," doesn't come off well at all; almost every "song" ends
with them thrashing their instruments (leader Kurt Cobain actually jumps onto the drummer at one point), and one number has such awful sound it seems to have been recorded underwater. (Of course, this is in keeping with the anti-commercial aesthetic of the film; who needs good sound if you've got
energy, right?) Babes in Toyland is like 70s band The Runaways on speed; so loud and fast they're like a parody of punk. Gumball plays a bunch of feedback called "Pre," although it's enlivened with some psychedelia-inspired computer graphics. Punk veterans the Ramones, on the other hand, should
sue Markey; you'd never know what a witty band they are from the atrocious live sound of "Commando" (which also totally misses the tune's tongue-in-cheek lyrics).
Too much of 1991: THE YEAR PUNK BROKE is devoted to Youth guitarist Thurston Moore; he does some interviews with fans and musicians along the way, occasionally managing to make a good point in spite of himself (such as the observation on the media co-opting youth culture), but more often he
rambles on like a spoiled kid who's been given his own tape recorder and can't think of anything to say, other than make as many scatalogical references as possible. Bassist-singer Kim Gordon gets to parody some scenes in Madonna's TRUTH OR DARE, but drummer Steve Shelley and guitarist Lee Ranaldo
don't get much screen time, being either too camera-shy or too cool to care about giving a coherent picture of the band or themselves.
1991: THE YEAR PUNK BROKE is clearly a fan's film; those wanting to know more about Sonic Youth and the punk scene will find it entertaining part of the time; irritating and incredibly self-indulgent the rest. (Profanity, substance abuse, adult situations.)
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- Released: 1992
- Rating: NR
- Review: We've already witnessed the birth and assimilation into the mainstream of punk rock, beginning in the late 1970s and early 80s, and now comes what could be called a punk documentary. 1991: THE YEAR PUNK BROKE is the visual equivalent of a punk album: raw,… (more)