Once in a while a film comes along and captures the moment right before a culture shifts. One of those films is David Markey's 1991: The Year Punk Broke. Long out-of-print and unavailable on DVD, Markey's documentary chronicles the euphoric two-week European tour in August 1991 by Sonic Youth, Nirvana and other bands that would soon be labelled "grunge." Three weeks after the tour, Nirvana unleashed Nevermind to the world and nothing would ever be the same.
Markey shot onstage and off with a hand-held super-8mm camera. Raw and grainy, his footage perfectly matches the music, which had been germinating in the Reagan '80s and was about to hit a mass, disaffected audience. Babes in Toyland and Dinosaur Jr. deliver gutsy performances, but headliners Sonic Youth dominate with renditions of "Teen-Age Riot," "Kool Thing" and Dirty Boots."
Perhaps it's hindsight, but Nirvana are more interesting to watch, knowing that the band lay on the cusp of stardom. They perform with ease and swagger without suffering the pressure that will destroy them in three short years. They roar through "Negative Creep," as Kurt Cobain bodysurfs on the massive outdoor audience, and ignites the same crowd with a new song called "Smells Like Teen Spirit."
There are lots of laughs backstage, such as food fights or catching Courtney Love trying to crash a media interview. Holding the film together are a bunch of mock interviews SY's Thurston Moore conducts with bewildered fans, pranksters like Nirvana's Krist Novoselic or the camera itself: "This tour is a dare to our parents, Bush, the KGB and the future."
Today, David Markey describes his film as "a home movie on acid." Others will see it as a nostalgia trip. Perhaps younger eyes will see this as a revelation. Whatever the case, 1991: The Year Punk Broke is a scream of liberating anger resonating from another era into the present. (We Got Power)