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1991. Grunge and Poses

One 20th anniversary will be sucking all the air out of this weekend, but there are a couple of others that may not be so peripheral.

"Twenty years ago," blogs the New Yorker's Sasha Frere-Jones today, "I spent an afternoon shuffling around Rocks In Your Head, a record store that once did business on Prince Street. (It closed in 2006.) My friend Jim worked the counter, and we were listening to a new album, over and over: Nirvana's Nevermind. At some point, Vernon Reid — the guitar player and founder of Living Colour — came in. He listened to four songs, nodded approvingly, and approached the counter. 'Metallica plus R.E.M. That's really smart.' He bought a copy and left."

Michael Stipe, Peter Buck and Mike Mills, who formally announced the amicable dissolution of R.E.M. yesterday, will surely be hoping their band will be remembered as more than half the formula for another band ten years their junior (and, for what it's worth, I personally believe they will be), but if this anecdote is the first to spring to Frere-Jones's mind upon hearing the news, it probably speaks volumes about just how pervasive nostalgia for 1991 is at the moment.

Of course, even as we headed into 2011, we knew it would be. Back in January, Jim DeRogatis and Greg Kot spent a good chunk of the 270th edition of Sound Opinions arguing that, for popular music, 1991 was as influential and significant as 1964 or 1976. The bullet points, as they list them:

Nirvana and the birth of Grunge
My Bloody Valentine and the growth of Shoegaze
Lollapalooza and the rise of the Alternative Nation
N.W.A and the reign of Gangsta Rap
Massive Attack and the "tripping" of hip-hop

Whichever of these you might favor, whichever you'd argue will ultimately cast the longest shadow, no one can argue that, 20 years on, we haven't plucked one from the bunch to collectively obsess over, at least until we tire of it again. The New York Times has made it a matter of record (and more than once, too): One album by one band rides the top of a wave of 20th anniversaries.

1991: The Year That Punk Broke is just now out on DVD, and when the LA Weekly's Karina Longworth called up the director of the doc, he seems to have been eager to tell this story first: "When Dave Markey flew from LAX to Heathrow with the three young, scrappy guys set to open for Sonic Youth on the European-festival leg of the Goo tour, he had no inkling he was sitting next to the instigators of the biggest cultural wave of the coming decade. 'Nirvana was a support act,' Markey recalls, on the phone during a break from editing a concert doc about Dinosaur Jr's recent performance of Bug at the 9:30 Club in DC. 'Not only that, but Nirvana was also completely enamored to be there, sharing the stage not only with Sonic Youth but with Dinosaur and other bands. I can remember the excitement, just on the plane ride over there, before the tour even started.'" Little wonder — Sonic Youth! But of course, as Frere-Jones reminds us, "Sonic Youth stayed in the game by ignoring the charts, and earned their keep at Geffen by attracting Nirvana and Beck."

Just how grungy is the air at the moment? From the first paragraph of Dan Callahan's moving essay on My Own Private Idaho (1991, naturally): "Phoenix's performance as Mike — sweetly lost, feral, 'who me?' sexy — paves the way for Jared Leto's Jordan Catalano, for grunge and Kurt Cobain, and for the collected works of Ethan Hawke. Like many 90s pretty boys, Mike is a connoisseur of his own damaged feelings. He makes self-destruction look fatally appealing and glamorous."

And James Franco, writing for the Paris Review today, reminds us that there's always more to any performance than we see in the final cut: "Sometimes these takes are inferior. But sometimes — as when they feature an actor like River Phoenix in a film like My Own Private Idaho, the best of his generation giving his best performance — every scrap is gold…. [W]hen I heard that Gus had held on to the editor's film rolls, I told him that I would do anything to see them…. Gus offered to let me make my own cut. It was overwhelming to be able to cut the raw material of my favorite film, a film that had moved me, that had helped shape me as a teenager. The only way I could justify cutting such material was to do what Gus and I had discussed: I cut it as if Gus had made it today."

Idaho, in the meantime, is screening as part of the Museum of the Moving Image's retrospective of the films of Gus Van Sant, one of them being, of course, Last Days (2005).

The recently wrapped Toronto International Film Festival screened two documentaries celebrating 20th anniversaries, neither of which will leave a mark as indelible as Nevermind (and in case, for whatever reason, it doesn't go without saying: nor should they!), so before easing into those roundups, a couple of items: Dennis Cooper's "15 sticklers from the Grunge," Ellen Copperfield's "Description of Kurt Cobain" and, of course, we have to have a poster roundup. This one's courtesy of Flavorwire. Finally, just for kicks, a bit of listening (3'06"). Moneyshot Cosmonaut, "Smells Like Karen Carpenter."

"Success came swiftly and voluminously — millions of records sold, Grammys, VMAs, the cover of Time magazine — when Pearl Jam dropped Ten 20 years ago this August," begins Eric Hynes in the Voice. "Which was also when the backlash began. Out-credded at the outset by its Seattle sibling, the punkier, unrulier Nirvana, Pearl Jam was never cool. Fronted by the foghorn-throated Eddie Vedder, gorgeous and humorless, the band cut solid records yet always acted cornered. But as proved by U2, longevity doesn't run on coolness — it runs on resilience, business savvy, and the loyalty of fans."

"Cameron Crowe knew the guys in Pearl Jam long before there was a Pearl Jam," writes the AV Club's Noel Murray, "from back when Crowe and the musicians who formed the backbone of the Seattle scene were all idealistic, enthusiastic young artists. Crowe's documentary Pearl Jam Twenty features footage from as far back as the band's Mother Love Bone and Mookie Blaylock days, tracking Eddie Vedder's replacement of MLB drug casualty Andrew Wood, and his evolution from being so shy that he'd only sing with his hair in his face to being capable of holding a festival crowd rapt with a piercing stare. Twenty then follows the band's story as it becomes one of the biggest concert attractions in the world, then settles into a smaller, in some ways more comfortable, level of success. Crowe clearly knows this world well, both from his personal interactions with the band and from his years on tour buses as a Rolling Stone journalist."

"Wholly uninterested in puffing up his subjects into an iconic rock outfit on a par with their idols Led Zeppelin and the Who, Crowe instead merely tells their story free from the constraints of rise-fall-rise clichés." Nick Schager in Slant: "Avoiding a strict album-by-album chronology pockmarked by crisis involving death, substance abuse, and internal frictions, all of which are addressed, but with no trumped-up titillation, the director opts for a more free-flowing structure that concentrates, first and foremost, on the band's dedication to personal and artistic camaraderie and integrity…. Pearl Jam Twenty elevates itself above a standard for-fans-only tribute through refreshing unconventionality and sincere affection and admiration."

More from Ryland Aldrich (Twitch), Henry Barnes (Guardian, 2/5), James Marsh (Twitch), Sheri Linden (Hollywood Reporter), Rob Nelson (Variety), Joshua Rothkopf (Time Out New York, 3/5) and Drew Taylor (Playlist, B+). Also: Crowe in the Guardian on his collection of Pearl Jam memorabilia, Selena Fragassi at PopMatters on Pearl Jam in concert earlier this month, Alex Carnevale on Crowe's Singles (1992) and Sharon Allen for indieWIRE: "Crowe said the holy grail was the much-talked-about but never-seen footage of Eddie Vedder slow-dancing with Kurt Cobain to Eric Clapton's 'Tears of Heaven' at the VMAs. He said the scene is 'so powerful, such a human moment and it is what happens outside the glare of the spotlight' and 'the fact that it's on film is amazing and so poignant.' Vedder recalled when seeing the footage for the first time in the movie that it was 'incredibly emotional, just 'cause he's smiling… and you wish he just could have pulled through.'"

Well, speaking of the resilience of U2. In some ways, Achtung Baby was to the band what Some Girls was to the Stones, or for that matter, Monster to R.E.M. — a mad dash for the zeitgeist that had somehow slipped ahead without them, a reboot, a jolt to the band's very dynamic. In preparation for an anniversary performance of Achtung Baby at Glastonbury this year, U2 returned to Hansa Studios in Berlin to "rethink" each of the tunes. And that's where Davis Guggenheim comes in. The result is From the Sky Down.

"Given Guggenheim's chief reputation as the activist auteur of social-problem pics (An Inconvenient Truth, Waiting for 'Superman'), From the Sky Down — the first docu ever to open the Toronto Film Festival — surprises somewhat by never once acknowledging the well-publicized humanitarian efforts of bandleader Bono," notes Rob Nelson in Variety. "Rather, the filmmaker portrays each of U2's four members — including guitarist the Edge, bass player Adam Clayton, and drummer Larry Mullen Jr —  as creative entities whose clashing sensibilities circa 1991 threatened to dissolve the group before miraculously coalescing into the likes of 'One,' described by Bono as a 'bittersweet song about disunity.'"

"The director meets elsewhere with the record's sonic masterminds Brian Eno, Daniel Lanois and Flood, and includes a welcome talk with photographer Anton Corbijn, whose importance to the band's persona rivals that of their producers," notes John DeFore in the Hollywood Reporter.

"Guggenheim, who had previously worked with the Edge on the 2008 doc It Might Get Loud, was interested in the story of the band at a crossroads," notes Nicole Sperling during a brief chat with the filmmaker for the Los Angeles Times.

And sure enough, From the Sky Down tells a story "about a band who'd explored their way into a creative dead end with the widely reviled Rattle & Hum and fled to Berlin to start from scratch, with club music and avant-garde industrial as their inspiration." Noel Murray at the AV Club: "The challenge then was to bring some U2-ishness back to their experiments with groove and electronica. Personally, I've never been a huge fan of Achtung Baby, which has a few songs I like a lot but that I feel overall is more conventional than it was meant to be. (I'm more a Zooropa man myself.) But I have to say, I think I appreciate Achtung Baby more after seeing this film — or at least understand it more. I wish Guggenheim had shown more of the new footage of the band re-learning their own songs, but as someone perpetually fascinated by how rock bands work — especially multi-platinum rock bands — I was right there every step of the way with From the Sky Down's explication of U2's mysterious ways."

More from Kevin Jagernauth (Playlist, B-), Leonard Klady (Movie City News) and Drew McWeeney (HitFix).

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