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1991: Nirvana Documentary Captures the Band Moments Before They Broke

1991 chronicles European dates in which Nirvana opened for Sonic Youth, whose Thurston Moore is pictured.
PHOTO BY DAVID MARKEY

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 D.C. “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.”

The long-out-of-print film that Markey made on that tour, 1991: The Year That Punk Broke, finally was released on DVD for the first time this week. Markey attributes the delay to “certain people’s lawyers ... you know, typical rock & roll business.”

Though 1991 is primarily a portrait of the tour through the eyes of Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon, Markey “spent a lot of time with Nirvana,” and in addition to showcasing performances of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and “Polly” from before their heavy MTV rotation, the film contains some of the most candid, casual footage of the band ever captured. With Dave Grohl doing a goofy Spinal Tap–inspired riff on the craft services spread, and Cobain joining in on a game of Spin the Bottle, 1991 presents Nirvana as the still-green, early-20-something kids they were.

“I think you would have had to have been out of your mind to anticipate the actual magnitude of their forthcoming success,” Markey says today, though he admits “gleams” of Nirvana’s unprecedented crossover power were evident while he was shooting the film. “You saw it at the end of their Reading performance: Kurt diving into the drum set and then the crowd just sort of coming alive, 60,000 people really being won over.” (Another indicator of the things to come: Cobain’s eventual wife, Courtney Love, shows up at one point and sucks the air out of the room.)

By the time the documentary was in post-production, Markey recalls, “the height of Nirvana-mania” was well under way. “Every day we would come into the edit room and it would just be, like, ‘Yeah, sold another million, huh?’ It was surreal.”

The fact that Markey and his subjects could clearly not foresee the not-too-distant future (Nevermind was released in September 1991, a few weeks after the tour wrapped) makes it seem an even more profound time capsule 20 years on. It’s a snapshot of the last moments of the pre-Nevermind era, when Nirvana were just kids opening for their idols, before their success would upend not just the rock industry but the pop cultural social order.

As a self-described “obnoxious young punk,” Burbank native Markey earned his underground movie bona fides in the early 1980s with two no-budget, labor-of-love films made in and about the L.A. music scene. The Slog Movie (1982) was a DIY documentary on the birth of local hardcore, featuring our own Henry Rollins, as well as Circle Jerks, Fear and Redd Kross. The latter band’s McDonald brothers also appeared in Markey’s first narrative feature, a playful spoof of the Runaways phenomenon, Desperate Teenage Lovedolls (1984).

His relationship with Sonic Youth dates back to those days. “I went to see them play at the Anti Club [in 1985]. Within a few months I had heard rumblings through various friends that they were interested in my work. Eventually this sort of friendship grew.”

Markey directed two of the 11 videos from the Goo album, and at one point he was asked to film a documentary about the making of that record. When that plan fell apart, Thurston Moore invited Markey to join the group for two weeks on their summer tour.

“Thurston sort of had to talk everybody into it: ‘Let’s incur this expense. Let’s bring Dave along and let him shoot some stuff.’ [The band] put up the money to get me over there — they bought me a plane ticket, they put me up in hotels. I put up the money to buy the suitcase worth of Super 8 film, which I think set me back about $1,600.”

In 1991, $1,600 bought about nine hours’ worth of the tiny film stock, the staple of midcentury home-movie enthusiasts, which video camcorders had by then made all but obsolete. Shot by one-man crew Markey on a high-end Beaulieu camera equipped to record sound from an onboard mic directly onto the stock’s magnetic strip, 1991 was just as much of a handmade experimental film as Markey’s previous work, with more in common with the Bolex diaries of Jonas Mekas than the multicamera panopticon treatment of a big-budget rock doc.

“I had two of these large [camera] batteries, and I always had one charging, on the bus,” Markey recalls. “A lot of it was shot with just 50-foot reels, which run under three minutes, and I would have to manage it on the fly as I was shooting.”

As much as it functions as a live mixtape (performances by Babes in Toyland, Dinosaur Jr. and the Ramones are interspersed into the Nirvana and Sonic Youth sets), 1991 is constructed like an endearingly lo-fi experimental film. Markey makes some of his strongest statements visually, with dense montages conflating footage shot across multiple days into the space of three-minute songs. There’s no narration, and the only formal interviews are man-on-the-street encounters between Thurston and bewildered European rock fans.

Shooting while being jostled inside the pit, his camera pointed up at the stage, Markey accurately captures a moshing fan’s point of view. The landmarks of Europe register only as fragments, while the tedium and sameness of every backstage, and the goofy delirium they inspire, are given extended vérité treatment. Sonic Youth and Nirvana’s mutual appreciation is attested to not via ass-kissing soundbite but by the simple fact that both bands wear the other’s merch.

It’s perhaps the ultimate postmodern rockumentary, in which the rock stars are painfully aware of the clichés of both bloated stardom and star-fucking tour docs, and actively attempt to circumvent those clichés through intentional, deadpan re-creation, acting out scenes from Truth or Dare or working lines from This Is Spinal Tap into conversation. Markey adds his own commentary by using cheesy of-the-era video effects to replicate Woodstock’s patented tiled imagery.

“I think it was more than a parody,” Markey says today, admitting that he would “occasionally feed [Thurston] lines,” and that Sonic Youth bassist Kim Gordon’s riffs on the Madonna movie were planned in advance. “You find yourself in these situations and they are sort of surreal. I grew up watching all those rock documentaries, from Don’t Look Back to Woodstock to Monterey Pop, all those touchstone historic rock films. At the time I didn’t think I was making that. It was somewhere between a piss-take and a nod to those films. And now when I look at it, so many years later, it looks more like those movies than I remember.”

1991 is a document of the brief moment when ironic humor and winking detachment felt fresh and genuinely oppositional rather than knee-jerk. Yet some of the “jokes,” particularly Thurston’s tongue-in-cheek grandstanding about the significance of the tour (“It’s a dare to our parents, to the Bush administration, to the KGB, which is overthrowing Gorbachev as we speak!”), play in hindsight as prescient, even sincere. The phrase “the year that punk broke” is coined on-screen by Thurston as a crack about how Mötley Crüe had worked a cover of “Anarchy in the U.K.” into their sets. The Nirvana phenomenon and its aftermath essentially transformed 1991’s inside jokes into historical markers.

“It was really Thurston and me joking amongst each other — it was a very personal thing,” Markey recalls. “Of course, everything that was to happen afterwards, it could sort of be seen as some sort of prophecy in a strange way. We were just reacting to the energy of that tour, what was going on at the time.”


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