Sometimes it takes a little serendipity for a rock documentary to become something special. While the filmmakers behind classics such as Don’t Look Back, Woodstock, and Gimme Shelter deserve credit for choosing their subjects wisely, they couldn’t have predicted their excellent timing. The same can be said of Dave Markey’s 1991: The Year That Punk Broke, an occasionally amateurish, frequently riveting film about Sonic Youth’s tour of European rock festivals in August 1991. As the band’s Thurston Moore admits during a panel discussion included in the extras for the film’s new DVD edition, 1991 was essentially a “home movie” shot on Super 8, and not intended to become an actual motion picture. It was only after one of Sonic Youth’s supporting acts—a scruffy, largely unheralded Seattle trio named Nirvana—became a sensation within weeks of playing those shows that Markey’s ragtag collection of performance footage and backstage goofiness suddenly became bankable.
Not that Markey rushed to cash in on Nirvana-mania. He didn’t even want to include an early performance of “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” reasoning that nobody would want to hear a song that was still all over the radio when the film was released in 1992. Fortunately, he decided otherwise—the live clip is both fantastically explosive and historically valuable—but 1991 stubbornly keeps the focus on Sonic Youth, the tour’s unquestioned star and a vital pillar of the oncoming alt-rock empire about to take over pop culture. While future stars like Kurt Cobain, Dave Grohl, and Courtney Love lurk in the background of 1991—and bands like Dinosaur, Jr., Babes In Toyland, and the Ramones contribute gloriously unruly performances—the spotlight never leaves Sonic Youth for long.
When it comes to the live footage, that’s a good thing, as the band is clearly at the peak of its powers. But when Sonic Youth isn’t playing shows, Moore and his wife and bandmate Kim Gordon are aloof and often insufferable, particularly when engaged in the Dylan-esque game of patronizing journalists or making a show of looking bored or unimpressed with their latest tour stop. (Apparently Markey only shot nine hours of film, which explains some of the more ho-hum offstage vignettes.) But while 1991 drags at times, there’s no denying the film’s importance, both as a time capsule and as a vivid depiction of an extremely loud quiet before the storm.
Key features: Nearly an hour of bonus footage and a panel discussion about the film, featuring the director and several tour participants, including Moore and J. Mascis.