In the early 1990s, the American music scene was irrevocably changed by an explosion of bands from one small sector of Northwestern real estate- the city of Seattle. Seemingly overnight bands like Nirvana, Pearl Jam and Soundgarden were dominating radio station play lists with the roaring guitars of angry, disaffected youth, a combination of the sonic power of heavy metal ironically combined with punk’s rejection of commercialization.
But like any burst of energy, this dynamic explosion soon burned itself out leaving in its wake shattered dreams, disillusioned bands and more than one causality.
And that’s when documentarian Doug Pray entered the picture, to try and decipher what exactly spawned this musical movement, which had somehow gained the moniker “grunge.” The result is the film Hype!, which was released in November 1996 after winning the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival the previous January.
“This is really an amazing story,” Pray said in a March 1997 interview. “You have a small handful of bands- about twenty people who in the course of five or six years completely changed pop culture. They really did, they totally revolutionized the music industry. I mean Nirvana single-handedly did, but all those bands were a part of that. When you step back and look at it like that, it’s fascinating. You think, ‘How does this happen?’ Because you know it will happen again somewhere else.”
Pray’s film traces the history of the Seattle music scene from the mid-1980s and bands like Young Fresh Fellows to its world-wide explosion less than a decade later. And with that new found popularity came hoards of record companies looking to sign up the latest bands and entertainment press looking for the “Seattle story.” All the while, stores like Macy’s were suddenly milking the musicians’ budget-minded propensity for flannel shirts into a high-end, boutique item. It was a collision between rock music and commerce the likes of which had last been seen a quarter of a century earlier in the Haight-Ashbury section of San Francisco.
“Actually, nobody really knows what grunge was,” Pray admitted. “If you look at it as a group of bands or as a community of people who didn’t take themselves seriously and played pretty loud, fun music – and even the dark, heavy stuff is kind of fun – then yeah, [that’s grunge] I don’t know even so much if there’s a sound than there is an attitude that everybody shared.”
One part of that Seattle attitude that perplexed many was how many of the area’s musicians seemed to actively resist what they saw as the music industries’ attempts to strip-mine the city of its musical gold.
“It seems sort of whiny if you didn’t really see it or if you’re not really there,” Pray said. “You kind of wonder ‘What are they complaining about? Wouldn’t anybody want to be the Capital of Hip?’ It is a different perspective when you’re really there and you realize how much history there is. It’s like anything, when you really get to know something you realize the huge difference between the media’s perception of something and what is real.”
Hype! has its origins in 1992, smack dab in the middle of the explosion of the Seattle music scene. Nirvana and Pearl Jam had released their breakthrough albums the previous fall and music industry scouts were scouting every bar and club within 50 miles of Seattle for the Next Big Band. Pray’s friend, producer Steve Helvey had seen some music videos that Pray had directed for the Seattle bands Young Fresh Fellows and Flop and approached him with an idea.
“He said “Look, if you know bands up there in this amazing music scene I keep reading about, why isn’t anybody doing a documentary? Let’s do something,’” recalled Pray. “My initial reaction was completely negative. I was like ‘Steve, that is the dumbest idea in the world because everybody’s heard of it. It’s already happened, you know. You would think to do a movie like this you’ve got to be there from day one. First of all, you’ve got to be from there and second you’ve got to be there for every event of the whole history. It had already peaked, at least in my mind.”
“The main reason was just that these people were so cynical, so anti-media,” Pray said. “I know about that, how sick of the whole ‘Seattle scene’ hype that a lot of these bands were. I just thought there’s no way. I finally picked up the phone and called my friends and said ‘Look I don’t know if we’re going to do this movie…’ I was so apologetic just to ask if they were into doing it. And I started realizing that there might actually be a real reason to make a movie like this, to do something that was really different from all the other imagery and concepts that you could find everywhere else.
“The reason they were mad is because they had been misrepresented. All of sudden, it seemed like there was plenty of room for a movie that would actually just represent them and would let some of the humor and show some of the bands who may not have been as popular but who were certainly as important to the development of the scene.”
After contacting several bands, Pray and his film crew arrived in Seattle and began shooting several smaller bands on the city’s club circuit.
“We were filming bands who had before then been completely ignored by the mainstream media,” said Pray. “Part of that is a practical reality that we couldn’t immediately go up there and film Soundgarden. So we filmed the bands that I knew and that my friends knew. That was one thing that actually confused the heck out of our investors who were like, ’Who’s Gas Huffer? Why did we just spend ten thousand feet of film filming a band named Gas Huffer?’ To me, I thought it was great. This is really cool, this is the real Seattle scene.”
It was Pray’s professionalism that convinced many skeptical musicians of the production’s good intentions. Pray recorded the performances with a 24-track digital mobile recording truck and filmed the performances with multiple cameras.
“Over the course of time people came to realize that we weren’t the forces of evil,” stated Pray. “We were not Hollywood, we didn’t have a lot of money. We were taking the filmmaking part seriously. Slowly, the more prominent bands who arguably had more to lose came to say ‘I guess this is ok, I guess these guys are all right.’ At first everybody was worried that we were just some Hollywood group coming in to package the whole thing and put out ‘The Grunge Movie.’”
One of the most striking bits of footage in the film was actually captured by Seattle music fan a few years earlier- video footage of Nirvana’s very first live performance of the song that would become their breakthrough smash “Smells Like Teen Spirit.”
“There was a guy who shot that and just had the tape,” explained Pray. “In typical Seattle fashion had not exploited it or told anyone about it. That to me is so characteristically Seattle, so very humble. If that guy had lived in LA, you would have seen it everywhere. [The tape] came really late in the game. I had a working cut of the movie and was just trying to finish up. I was like ‘We really, really need some more archival footage,’ i.e. Nirvana and some other bands. This VHS came in the mail one morning and I popped it in and was like ‘That’s it! That’s amazing.’ The biggest coupe on that was just getting the support of the other members of Nirvana, Chris (Novoslic) and Dave (Grohl), who were cool.”
At the time of Hype’s release, Nirvana front man Kurt Cobain’s suicide was still fresh in the memories of music fans. One can’t help feel a twinge of sadness watching Cobain and his band mates at a time when they had no idea of the success they would achieve and eventually become the victims of.
But while Cobain’s death was headline news around the world, his passing wasn’t the only death that would shake the Seattle music community. On the evening of July 7, 1993, Mia Zapata, the lead singer of band The Gits, was brutally raped and murdered while walking home. At the time the film was produced, Zapata’s murderer had not been found.
“I had some really great interview material talking about that death and the impact of that death on the community,” admitted Pray. “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.”
“You actually feel a great responsibility sitting in the editing room trying to tell this story accurately yet at the same time making it funny and entertaining,” Pray continued. “I didn’t want to do a real boring, PBS style documentary about ‘The History of the Seattle Music Scene.’ I didn’t want to treat it like this major historical thing. I don’t think that rock should ever be treated with total reverence. These bands didn’t take themselves seriously and that’s what they were afraid of.”
Note: This archival interview with director Doug Pray was originally conducted in March 1997 while the director was still doing publicity for his documentary Hype!. Portions of this conversation previously appeared in an April 4, 1997 article in the Wilkes-Barre, PA Times Leader newspaper.