Time to retire your janky old VHS — Dave Markey's concert doc 1991: The Year Punk Broke is finally out on DVD, with remastered footage and re-synced audio to boot. The film captures Sonic Youth's 1991 European festival tour, two weeks of fuzzed-out mayhem with supporting and/or festival-associated acts Dinosaur Jr., Babes in Toyland, Gumball, the Ramones, and a just-before they-got-really-huge Nirvana.
Structured fairly conventionally, with live footage — props for including complete performances of iconic songs like "Kool Thing," "Dirty Boots," and "Smells Like Teen Spirit" — bookended by behind-the-scenes clips, 1991: The Year Punk Broke offers pure, uncut grunge-era nostalgia for anyone who remembers tying a flannel around his or her waist for fashion purposes (guilty). But more importantly, it captures the revolutionary spirit of the era, so memorably and accurately mocked by Portlandia, in which goofy-looking musicians playing avant-garde music could become honest-to-god rock stars. The film's title refers not just to the year it was shot, but also pinpoints the era when the outsider/punk aesthetic started breaking through to the masses. (Here's lookin' at you, Hot Topic — the mall chain opened its first store in 1988.)
Most of the film's non-musical moments are provided by Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore, who strolls through Europe clutching a cheap microphone, unleashing seemingly endless stream-of-conscious jokes (often while wife and bandmate Kim Gordon is alongside, totally deadpan). Markey lets Moore go on a little long sometimes, but the punch line is usually worth it. Other winning moments come courtesy of a very young Dave Grohl affecting a Transylvanian accent and attacking the backstage food table, and Gordon carefully applying make-up on Kurt Cobain: "I think you need some mascara." [Long pause.] "I think so too."
Though 1991: The Year Punk Broke's focus is Sonic Youth, its golden moments come courtesy of Nirvana, still in happy-go-lucky mode just prior to Nevermind's release and near-immediate monster success. Twenty years later (20 years — goddamn, how did that happen?), the band's blistering stage presence remains as exciting as ever, and maybe even moreso, given hindsight and its lightning-in-a-bottle quality. That the film ends with Moore and co. giving the finger to, and mooning, a TV showing MTV — the medium that assured Nirvana's sudden, great success, which led to Cobain's subsequent tragic downfall — is all too appropriate.
DVD extras include a 2003 discussion about the making of the film with Markey, Moore, Dinosaur Jr.'s J. Mascis, and others, plus the film's original trailer and additional live footage.
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