The timing couldn’t be more tragic. Chris Cornell, the lead singer of Soundgarden, one of the big “grunge” bands to come out of the Seattle scene of the early 1990s, passed away just a day before the planned reissue of one of the iconic movie soundtracks of that era, Singles. That movie and its accompanying album were focused on the sound of that city at that time, capturing that cultural moment. If you weren’t already hip to the bands that were dominating Seattle clubs and beginning to break into mainstream awareness, that movie likely opened your eyes. Cornell was a big part of the original album, with one solo song and one with Soundgarden appearing on it and with Cornell himself appearing briefly in the movie. The reissue that’s out today has even more, with his entire “Poncier” EP and more appearing on it. While he never really went away, this was going to be a big moment for him and it’s terrible that he seemingly was at his lowest point and saw no option but to take his own life.
Putting that aside, the reissue of the soundtrack also provides an occasion to revisit the marketing for Singles. That’s because of the music – specifically the soundtrack – played a large role in the marketing of the movie. At least it as a larger role than soundtracks are usually offered or given. The double-album reissue not only contains the original tracks but some songs, including a couple tracks by the fictional band Citizen Dick, that appeared in the movie but didn’t make the single disc release.
Starring Matt Dillon, Bridget Fonda, Campbell Scott and Kyra Sedgwick and written and directed by Cameron Crowe, the movie is a glimpse in to young adult life as the 20th century entered its final decade. Each of the characters is doing something with their life, whether it’s working for city government, managing a non-profit, singing in a band or working at a coffee shop, that shows how flexible and fungible life can be when you’re just a couple years out of college and still defining yourself. The story follows all four – and some of their other friends – as they navigate their careers, their friendships, their social lives and their romantic pursuits. Each wants something, but all are struggling to reach it.
All four major characters show up on the theatrical poster. They’re posed in a black-and-white photo that evokes a French New Wave film and gives you a quick glimpse as to the relationships in play. Scott and Sedgwick are kissing in the foreground while Fonda and Dillon are sitting on a park bench, her looking adoringly at him, his guitar case separating them and him looking at the camera. Behind them, Jim True, who plays a friend of Scott’s character, looks over the whole thing from a drinking fountain. Passersby are blurred in the background as if this tableau is frozen as the rest of the world passes them by.
It’s astounding, considering how bland and generic posters that use photographs have become, how much of the story is conveyed here and what an attitude is contained in this image. The composition and contrast here actually tell a story. The dynamics among the people we’re watching are all clear and shown in a way that is much more artistic than we’re used to seeing on a movie poster. This isn’t a hastily-arranged collection of headshots that have been attached to body doubles. These are people. I’d love to know who the photographer here is because it’s the kind of photo that could legitimately be part of a gallery show and which was clearly shot with a sense of style. This isn’t an intern or art director with a Polaroid, this is someone who knows framing and exposure and captures a real moment. It’s professional work by someone who loves the art and knows how the image needs to be supporting the product it’s helping to sell.
Now to the trailer, which is where the soundtrack really steps up to the plate. It starts out with the opening chords of “Dyslexic Heart,” the first solo, post-Replacements song from Paul Westerberg that was also a big single from the album. We’re immediately introduced to the idea that the movie is about love and romance, with the same “Love is a game. Easy to start. Hard to finish.” copy that appears on the poster and that continues with narration that talks about how you take sex when you can’t find love, friendship when you can’t find sex and so on. Amidst all that, we’re introduced to the main characters and get a sense of what’s going on as they all seek out a connection in Seattle. The connections – real or potential – between most of them are laid out as we see who’s dating, who’s just friends, who’s wooing and more.
Oddly there isn’t much of an emphasis on the actual music scene that dominates much of the story in the movie. We don’t see Dillon’s Cliff on stage, just generally kind of rehearsing with his band. And there are a couple shots that take place either at or around a club but that’s about it. Inste, d it’s all about the uncertainty that surrounds finding love and the indecision that dominates. It’s at the end that the soundtrack really steps up, with the names of some of the bands that appear on the album showing up on screen. That list includes Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, Westerberg, Alice in Chains and Smashing Pumpkins.
Now it’s important to put that list of bands in the context of June, 1992. Pearl Jam’s debut “10” came out just a year before, meaning the movie was shot (including their appearance as part of Citizen Dick) that same year. ’91 was also when Soundgarden’s breakout album “Badmotorfinger” was released. Alice in Chains’ “Dirt” didn’t come out until ’92. And while Smashing Pumpkins was already a part of Chicago’s club scene, their big “Siamese Dream” record wouldn’t come out until ’93. So it’s not like this was a list of the biggest bands in the world, it was very much, as Crowe has described it, like a mixtape of largely up-and-coming bands that were right on the cusp of dominating the music world but who weren’t quite there yet. While it had been circulating in Seattle, Chicago and elsewhere for a while and Nirvana had broken out in ’91, “grunge” wasn’t quite mainstream. Just that brief mention as part of the movie’s marketing was, for the most part, major exposure for these bands and the genre they were representing.
A month or so ago there was a debate online over which soundtrack was the better snapshot of the 1990s, Transporting or Batman Forever. There’s no real right answer to that question (though it certainly isn’t either of those) and contenders should include albums supporting Empire Records and other movies that are so centered around music. The soundtrack for Singles should absolutely be in that conversation for its role in capturing a key moment in not only our culture but a music scene that was about to break out in a big way, with bands that were about to become household names for a generation of music fans.