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‘1991: The Year Punk Broke’ (NR)

By Richard Harrington
Washington Post Staff Writer
December 25, 1992

"1991's going to be the year punk breaks through to the mass consciousness of a gullible society," says Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore at one point during "1991: The Year Punk Broke." It's a sarcastic comment in a movie documenting Sonic Youth's European tour, as well as an ironic one, because it was one of the support bands, Nirvana, that actually lived up to Moore's prediction. The Seattle trio performs a rough-hewn version of "Smells Like Teen Spirit," the song that provoked quadruple platinum sales on their major-label debut, along with the terse "Polly," "Endless, Nameless" and "Negative Creep." And in the process Nirvana proves itself gleefully destructive.

This low-budget film, halfway between a rockumentary and a mockumentary, also features several other alternative favorites like Dinosaur Jr. (two songs), Gumball, Babes in Toyland and the Ramones (one song each), but the focus is clearly on Sonic Youth (eight songs) and Moore in particular.

The gangly, generally engaging Moore is an odd mix of "Roger and Me's" Michael Moore and the Madonna of "Truth or Dare" (which the film parodies both self-consciously and unconsciously). Sometimes he's annoyingly funny, as in the opening punk poem that inadvertently lampoons those Gap ads or when he tells a foreign interviewer, "I think we should destroy the bogus capitalist process that is destroying youth culture by mass marketing and commercial paranoid behavior, and the first step is to destroy the record companies. Do you not agree?" But Moore simply takes up too much camera time; at some points he acts like a curt Kurt Loder in his interviews with musicians and fans alike. Personally, we'd like to have seen more of bassist Kim Gordon, who's cool and funny and has a career as a horror film siren if this music thing ever evaporates.

Sonic's Youth European tour, all outdoor concerts and festivals, was something of a Lollapalooza, with the emphasis on rhythm and noise. Such Youth staples as "Kool Thing," "Teenage Riot," "Dirty Boots" and "Expressway to Yr Skull" are given energized readings, the later with its traditionally expansive freak-out finale. There'a a playful intensity about the band, and when it gets into gear its guitar-riven sound is quite cathartic.

Director Dave Markey, responsible for several underground favorites and some Sonic Youth videos, comes from the frenetic wing of vide-auteurs, and there's more quick cuts here than in a year of Rush Limbaugh radio shows. Over the course of the film he explores (and sometimes twists) video and concert film conventions, mixing in lots of home-movie-style backstage and touring scenes, almost always featuring Moore, who could stand to be a little less. As a documentary, "1991" serves the band's purpose, but it's going to be hard to turn the Biograph into a mosh pit. The film has also just been released on video, but it will benefit from a big screen and big sound.

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