Since we’ve all been in quarantine, it’s safe to say that we have more time on our hands than we know what to do with. There’s only so much we can do in our houses before we turn back to watching TV and streaming movies. So with this over-supply of time, I decided to learn about the bands that paved the way for the music we love today. While I already knew who these bands are and that they’re important, I hadn’t listened to their music extensively and I didn’t have the full picture of how and why they got so famous. Like any film student, I decided the best way to learn about these bands would be through documentaries and my search was on. My deep dive in music history started with one of my favorite bands of all time, Sonic Youth.
1991: The Year Punk Broke
(Available on YouTube)
Sonic Youth is a band that I think doesn’t get enough credit for their massive influence, or maybe I’m just a little biased. Either way Sonic Youth brought bands like Mudhoney and Nirvana on tour with them just as those bands were starting to get popular. 1991: The Year Punk Broke is a compilation of concert footage and behind the scenes tour antics between the bands for Sonic Youth’s 1991 tour in Europe. It features Mudhoney, Nirvana, Dinosaur Jr, Babes in Toyland and many more influential bands. Since there are no in-person concerts right now, live concert footage is filling the hole in my heart that going to shows has left for now. Personally, I really enjoyed the filler points between each song that featured the bands just messing around backstage. The members of Sonic Youth were close with those of Nirvana so it’s really fun to watch Kurt Cobain with all these people when it seems he’s happy. You feel like a fly on the wall looking into this time when these “alternative” bands were really starting to make it big. While it’s not a traditional documentary with a clear storyline it is a great sampler of music from each of these bands to get you interested in them.
From watching 1991 I got curious about the scene that created Nirvana and Mudhoney. The Seattle scene has been named “grunge” by outsider media but as I learned in the documentary Hype!, it’s not a term that the bands that came out of the scene liked to use to describe their music. This documentary follows how the grunge scene was started in tiny towns in the Pacific Northwest because of the lack of bands that were willing to play in their area. The demand for these bands were slowly growing until Nirvana rocketed to stardom and grunge was commodified by the media as a marketing tool to sell clothing and a lifestyle to teens all across the country. This documentary really focuses on the creation of the scene and the networks that were created by these bands helping each other out to book shows and create the music they wanted to hear. Watching it made me miss being close to the scene in Southern California, going to shows and supporting bands night after night. It’s also I think uplifting to see that bands can make it big coming from these small scenes like in Seattle.
I’m Now: The Story of Mudhoney
(Available on Amazon)
One of the groups that made it big from the Seattle scene was Mudhoney. Although they were never as big as Nirvana, their place in the Sub-Pop record label history is cemented. They are one of the most influential bands that helped to pioneer that fuzzy sound that we hear in punk and alt-rock bands today. Their lyrics were poetic and just all around smart. Everyone should take the time to sit down and listen to their most famous EP Superfuzz Bigmuff because it is so important in music history.
(Available on Amazon)
Throwing it back a little further into music history, Gimme Danger is an in-depth look at the legacy of The Stooges. Often called “the godfather of punk,” frontman Iggy Pop reflects back on how the group got started, taking us through their many break ups and reunions. The influence of The Stooges is undeniable. Looking at the discography of so many bands that I love from the 80’s and 90’s, many of them at some point have covered “I Wanna Be Your Dog.” This documentary gives you a great look into the lives of The Stooges and how they got popular. Iggy Pop is a great character that gives very matter of fact interviews about the music industry pitfalls. It’s also just a really well done film with funny animation and all around good editing.
Joan Jett: Bad Reputation
(Available on Hulu)
Let’s just get something out of the way: you can’t talk about female rock groups without mentioning Joan Jett and The Runaways, it’s just a fact. Joan Jett pioneered the way for female musicians who didn’t want to play light hearted love songs, she wanted to play rock just like the boys were doing and she was gonna do it better. Joan Jett: Bad Reputation takes you through Joan’s early music career, the rise and fall of The Runaways, and her revival as Joan Jett and the Black Hearts. I walked away from watching this documentary with so much more respect for Joan because what she accomplished was really incredible, not to mention that she is someone who really lives and breathes her music. Today it seems more common to have a woman playing rock in an all female group but before Joan and The Runaways that wasn’t a thing. They inspired a whole generation of women to play the music that they wanted and to say what they wanted to say.
The Punk Singer
(Available on YouTube)
After Joan Jett came punk rock feminism. Bikini Kill co-founded the riot grrrl movement that became a space for women to share their art and talk about revolution. Now I could go on and on about how important Bikini Kill is but I’ll try and keep it short and just let you watch The Punk Singer that documents the career of Bikini Kill’s front woman Kathleen Hanna. She is truly a badass, there’s just no other way to put it. Kathleen Hanna isn’t just a musician, she’s an activist that’s shown up for important issues. What she did in Bikini Kill and her other musical projects was revolutionary and I think now more than ever they are important to listen to because we’re still fighting for the same things we were back then.
Pavement: Slow Century
Pavement is a little bit of a wildcard band that I wanted to throw in. Although they aren’t as prolific as the other bands, I think they’re a band that subtly influences a lot of the artists we listen to today. A lot of the groups that we cover on Altangeles remind me of Pavement, especially bands like Buddha Trixie. This documentary is a great look into the career of this band and how they evolved. They were called a “noise” band which really is a great way to describe their revolutionary guitar riffs. If you’re looking for some easy listening good indie rock music I highly recommend checking out this documentary and Pavement’s album Crooked Rain Crooked Rain: LA’s Desert Origins.
With the lack of live music in the world right now documentaries are a great way to fill up some time and fill that void. Any older band that you love probably has a documentary and there are dozens more that I found that didn’t make this list, so I encourage you to go out and deep dive to the music scenes that make you happy. Listening to older music creates a greater understanding of the music we listen to today. So stay safe, stay inside, and get to watching.