It’s been over 20 years since filmmaker Doug Pray released “Hype!”, his influential documentary that captured the rise and fall of the Seattle music scene.
But in some ways, it feels like a century.
The 1990s music scene that spawned Nirvana, Pearl Jam and Soundgarden exploded just a few years before the internet changed everything about how music was made, sold and consumed.
“It really was the last major local scene in the world,” Pray, a Colorado native who grew up in Madison, said in a phone interview. “I think the internet made it impossible for there to be a locally acclaimed scene to that level.”
Given how much had changed, Pray was eager to revisit the film for its 20th anniversary edition, released recently on a new Blu-ray edition from Shout! Factory. The Blu-ray includes a new commentary track by Pray and a featurette in which Pray goes back to Seattle to interview some of the subjects in the film, including Mark Arm and Steve Turner of Mudhoney.
Pray’s documentary was a deep dive into the '90s Pacific Northwest music scene at every level, from the bands that became huge like Nirvana and Pearl Jam to the hundreds of little bands toiling away in their basements and garages. It’s an entertaining portrait of a mutually supportive and surprisingly upbeat music community, given how dark and heavy the music often got.
“The Seattle music scene was always a lot more fun than people thought it was from the outside,” Pray said. “From the outside it looked brooding and angst-ridden, but the truth there was just a hell of a lot of humor, and none of the bands were taking themselves that seriously. We really were having a blast.”
But the film also takes a dark turn with the 1994 suicide of Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain, which seemed to signal the demise of the Seattle music scene. But even if the record industry hype machine moved on from Seattle, the local music scene proved more resilient, and the 20-years-later feature shows many of the same musicians still plugging away.
“It wasn’t just a façade,” Pray said. “The anomaly was that four of the bands got incredibly famous. When that passed then the rest of the community was just still there. It never really was a fad.”
While the present-day interviews celebrate that spirit, they were also overshadowed by another death — the May suicide of Soundgarden frontman Chris Cornell.
“There really is a tragic side to the scene where there just seems to be a lot more death,” Pray said. “I’m very careful to say that I don’t think there’s more death and destruction in the Seattle scene than any other. But it seems that way.”
The re-release of “Hype!” comes in the middle of a busy and productive time for Pray. He just spent several years as a producer and editor on the HBO documentary mini-series “The Defiant Ones,” which chronicles the lives and influence of producer Jimmy Iovine and Dr. Dre.
“It was one of the most intense and challenging jobs I’ve ever done in my life for a number of reasons,” Pray said. “From ‘Hype!’ on, I’ve always been into sound design and the musicality of editing. And Allen Hughes as a director is as well. I’ve never been in an edit room with somebody who is more tuned into ‘How is this music making you feel?’ and 'What is it doing in this scene?'
“It was just a very dynamic, very creative project. It just kept getting bigger and bigger, with more interviews and more stuff. The stuff that Dr. Dre and Jimmy touched — it’s just mind-boggling how many careers they propelled.”
Pray also recently went to Ashland, Wisconsin, where his father, a University of Wisconsin-Madison geology professor, grew up, to make a series of short documentaries interviewing local residents about a proposed “factory farm” going into the region.
“That’s probably my favorite project that I’ve done in some years,” he said. “It was incredibly intimate. It’s something I cared a great deal about with my dad being from Ashland. It’s just one of those things where you realize — I have a camera, and I can do this with a crew of one. I brought it home and edited them, and there was a simplicity to that.”