by Chris Yurkiw

Asking the musical question, did "punk" break or go broke in 1991? If the fine art of making a rockumentary film has not caught up with the four-minute music video, local rock promoter Michael Friedman has a cure: turn the concert-film back into a concert. Friedman has rented the Rialto theater for two nights to present a documentary of Sonic Youth on tour in Europe in 1991: The Year Punk Broke.

It's a unique way of marketing the always-iffy proposition of a music film. "The distributor in Los Angeles loved the idea," says Friedman. "I'm trying to create the atmosphere of a concert here. I'm trying to create some hype. It's really a film for fans [of Sonic Youth]." And the movie is made by a fan, too. Director Dave Markey is well connected in the LA music scene, having already done two underground music-driven flicks with Desperate Teenage Lovedolls and Lovedolls Superstar.

Along with fellow West Coast "punk auteur" Penelope Spheeris (The Decline of Western Civilization & Part 2; The Metal Years, Suburbia, Wayne's World), Markey is a chronicler of punk music as it happened in Southern California. And a logical byproduct of the LA film industry is therefore the best celluloid-documented city music scene in the world. Enter New York City, where Sonic Youth-the world's premiere artcore noise band-hail from, and you have one of the dynamics in pace: Throw Markey and the Sonics together in Europe on the band's 1991 Goo tour, toss in preplatinum opening act Nirvana along with shots of Dinosaur Jr, Babes in Toyland, Gumball and The Ramones, and you have some healthy stock for the elusive, definitive, rock documentary, which this movie is not. But "1991" is a good music film done very much in the spirit of its subject: grainy, dirty, and chaotic.

Markey has mastered the techniques of the Ultimate Unsteady Cam which roves, bounces, jerks, gets dropped and generally hops through concerts as if it were in the pit in front of the stage. The director uses the advances music videos have made in melding music and image, and uses techniques such as the extremely fast cut, flip-flopping from color to black & white, and some computer manipulation to hold our attention. Markey creates the sensation of being sucked into a vortex of grit-the feeling of being flushed down a toilet filled with sand, watching the kaleidoscope swirl of the world as a horrifying yet compelling din roars.

As Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth says, after we are privy to his exit from a public cubicle, "Now for some real shit-we play live!" There is no narration, but Moore serves as impromptu host and resident buffoon throughout the film. Fans know that Sonic Youth have always had a healthy sense of humor, but we find out here that guitarist Moore is the extrovert, so much so that it takes all three of his subdued bandmates to act as a foil. Like the classic fool, Moore constantly jokes, free-associates and spews inanities, but not without the occasional gem of insight to let us know he is not a total space case. In one sequence, Moore is interviewing a small group of European fans. He asks them, "What do you think should be done when corporations begin to control aspects of youth culture, like music?" He doesn't relinquish the microphone: "I think we should start by destroying the record companies."

It's interesting to note that in 1991, these groups on the cutting edge of "punk" music are all on labels that are part of the same media conglomerate (Time-Warner). Markey lucked out in catching Nirvana on film, and via their success phenomenon, the film inadvertently raises questions about the state of indie, alternative, or "punk" music in 1992. How does this music, 15 years after the fact, relate to what was originally called punk music? Just how did it "break" in 1991? One of the best shots in the film is of the hospitality tables set up backstage for the groups: perfectly set tables with the groups' names on place cards: "Sonic Youth," "Nirvana,"" Dinosaur Jr," "The Ramones." As noted, Moore is aware of the indie-corporate irony, but what can he do about it? Nirvana best sum up the contradictions in "punk" in 1992. In one scene, drummer rummer David Grohl and bassist Chris Novoselic play classic rock cliché of "trash the hotel room" schtick (with no apparent irony) in the dining room, throwing food everywhere. Cut to enigma Kurt Cobain as he ends the group's set in true punk, self-destructo style. He backs up to the front of the stage, then runs full speed and jumps into Grohl's drum kit, which probably hurt a lot, but it does make a cool sound.