Nirvana, Sonic Youth and the cult grunge film that shook up the music industry

'1991 - The Year That Punk Broke' will celebrate the 25th anniversary of its release with a special screening in Dalston, London

On August 11 London’s Rio Cinema and NTS will be hosting a special late night screening of cult grunge and alt.rock classic 1991: The Year That Punk Broke, to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the film’s release. The documentary, directed by Dave Markey, followed Sonic Youth on tour, but also featured candid footage of support act Nirvana. The special screening will feature never-before-seen footage of both Nirvana and Sonic Youth, as well as a selection of Markey’s videos for The Breeders, Black Flag, At The Drive In and Black Lips. Skinny Girl Diet will play live and who knows, local boy Thurston Moore might even pop down too. We spoke to Dave Markey ahead of the screening about the film’s legacy.

How did the film come about?

“Thurston Moore asked me to come along and document this tour. I had done a couple music vids for the band by that point for the ‘Goo’ LP. ‘Mildred Pierce’ – in which I cast Sofia Coppola – and a longer one for ‘Cinderella’s Big Score’. I also made a couple short films featuring the band. Everyone seemed to like them.”

How did you start working with Sonic Youth?

“I first saw them in 1985 playing in the Mojave Desert for the Gila Monster Jamboree, their very first Southern California show. That was with Meat Puppets and Redd Kross. I didn’t meet them that night, save for a brief conversation with their then drummer, Bob Bert.  Thurston knew my films and was into them. Our paths crossed over the following years. We were then label mates at SST Records. I was with Painted Willie at the time (drummer/ singer). They contributed a song to the soundtrack of my 1986 film Lovedolls Superstar, a cover of Alice Cooper’s ‘Hallowed Be My Name’. That also was the very first studio recording with their then new drummer, Steve Shelley.”

The Year That Punk Broke is full of Madonna references – what was the idea behind that?

“That was probably the only thing we had worked out going into the film. Sonic Youth were big Madonna fans, and had previously referenced her with their offshoot project, Ciccone Youth. Truth or Dare – the American title of In Bed With Madonna – was a big film in 1991. I thought it would be fun to re-create certain scenes from that film. A working title going into the film was Tooth or Hair but that didn’t stick for good reason.

What’s the strangest thing that happened when you were filming?

“Right out of the gate we kept seeing weird references to ‘punk’. First day of the tour we saw Motley Crue covering the Sex Pistols’ ‘Anarchy in the UK’.  This prompted me to quip sarcastically, ‘Wow. 1991 is the year that punk rock finally breaks…’. That stuck around and was repeated by Kim Gordon on stage one night of the tour. Then it kept going – there was a fashion spread in Elle titled Modern Punk. There was graffiti on a wall near one of the German venues that said ‘Punk Rules, OK’.  Something was in the air at the time, clearly…”.

What do you think young bands could learn from the film?

“How to have a good time. I think this may be the most important message in the film. Also, I think just about every artist in the film is at the top of their game, Nirvana particularly. They hadn’t become The Beatles yet.”

What’s your favourite scene?

“I love Kim Gordon applying lipstick to all three Nirvana members. It’s a nice intimate, quiet moment.”

What’s your best memory of Kurt Cobain from filming?

“When I went up to him on stage at the last show of the tour in Rotterdam to ask him if they would play ‘In Bloom’ so I could get it documented. They had not played it any of the other dates. He obliged.”

Who made you laugh the most when filming?

“Thurston. We had a lot of fun making each other laugh throughout the tour. In fact, it was the humour that first endeared me to Sonic Youth, or more specifically, Thurston.”

What sets the film apart from other music docs?

“Probably the humour, and where we went it. How the film was made was pretty unorthodox. One guy with a Super-8 camera. It’s more like an experimental film with all the hand held camera work, and through-the-lens effects. It looks like the 20th century to me.”

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