Even though it’s been over 30 years, the Grunge era in music still captivates, inspires, and offers an emotional release for fans across the globe. It seems that every day, more people continue to discover this brief but impactful period in time. I am one of those, first hearing “Heart-Shaped Box” and “I Stay Away” during a jam session with my mom in my early teens…in the mid-2000s. In the following years, I would slowly collect information and grow a massive playlist of nineties grunge and alternative rock for every occasion. Songs to hype me up, songs to pass the time on my agonizing bus commute, and songs to listen to some haunted screaming when I can’t scream myself. Oh, the many headphones I’ve broken because I love to feel aggressive music rattling in my head.
It’s strange to think, but the pinnacle of Grunge lasted merely less than five years, the flame burning ferociously before being snuffed out with a swift breath.
Over the past two decades, there have been numerous documentaries, musical acts, and films that have attempted to rekindle the essence of the angst, euphoria, greasy hair, and “club with dirt-encrusted, sweaty floors” that the Seattle scene provided. There is one film, however, that has withstood the test of time as a little snapshot of this particular piece of rock history.
Cameron Crowe‘s Singles is the definitive film of the Grunge era. Perhaps the only film that showcases the flourishing music scene in nineties Seattle, Singles is not only a delightful time capsule of the dating scene for young Gen-Xers but also of a musical movement that shifted pop culture forever. Rock fans tend to be split about the movie, but it’s continuously suggested as a map for those who make the pilgrimage to Seattle and want to revisit the historical landmarks.
While Crowe’s script was already in progress, the death of rising rockstar Andrew “Andy” Wood prompted Crowe to take a different direction. Sometimes stated as the “Unsung Hero of Grunge,” the loss of Andy Wood set off a sort of butterfly effect across the pop culture landscape. Singles isn’t about Wood, but it was inspired by the sense of community he helped create. Because of this, Wood’s presence is felt throughout Singles, with the inclusion of music from his band Mother Love Bone, small supporting roles by his former bandmates Jeff Ament and Stone Gossard, Alice in Chains’ song “Would?,” which was written in his honor, and numerous shots of the original Mother Love Bone mural (painted by Jeff Ament).
In his filmmaker diary (published in Rolling Stone), Crowe recalls what he saw upon the announcement of the musician’s passing:
“And here were these disconnected single people, many from broken homes, many meeting each other for the first time, forming their own family. In the coming years, many of the musicians in that room would see success far beyond their early dreams, beyond even the arena dreams of Andy Wood. But that night it was mostly about staying warm, pulling together. It was almost instinctual. And I thought about Los Angeles, where musicians would already have slipped audition tapes into Kelly’s pocket.
I was in the process of rewriting an old script of mine at the time. It was called Singles, and that night it took a different course. I wanted to write something that captured the feeling in that room. Not Andy’s story but the story of how people instinctively need to be together. Is anybody truly single? I knew I’d soon be rewriting the rewrite of my script, and I knew I had to direct it, too.”
Crowe would then go on to pen something that would act as a testament to our need to connect with other human beings, no matter what the circumstances. Following the rewrite, Singles (for the most part) as we know it was conceived.
While revisiting Singles, to me, it appeared like a happy little oxymoron. Singles is a feel-good, at times cheesy rom-com with a plethora of rage-fueled music at its core. Considering the dark and often depressing sounds of the Grunge era, Singles is surprisingly optimistic, spreading a message of hope for those looking to find their own special person (or people). Well, maybe Singles isn’t as much of a conundrum as it seems. It highlights the importance of found family, which many of the bands of the time happened to be. Before the international fame, fortune, and copious drugs, they were people simply joining together to play music and have fun.
Singles brings men who would go on to be hailed as rock gods, back down to earth. They serve as the movie’s backdrop, appearing as regular Joes alongside the main cast. The likes of Alice in Chains, Soundgarden, a partial Pearl Jam in its infancy, and Tad Doyle of the band Tad all appear. Additionally, ultimate Grunge band, Mudhoney, is frequently referenced.
Outside of the music, Singles centers six young and single Seattle residents who all live in the same apartment complex. The film opens with Linda (Kyra Sedgewick), an independent woman who’s ecstatic about having a home of her own with a garage. She then goes on to have a romance with the lovelorn and straight-laced Steve (Campbell Scott). These two are the heart of the film, even though most of the marketing materials prominently feature Bridget Fonda and Matt Dillon‘s characters. The next couple is the naive and hip Janet (Bridget Fonda) who’s obsessed with her wannabe rock star boyfriend Cliff (Matt Dillon), who is a bit detached and focused on the success of his band, Citizen Dick.
Then there’s David, (Jim True-Frost) Steve’s dorky friend who attempts to wow women with his fancy gadgets, like a digital watch that stores a whopping 20 numbers. Lastly, there’s Debbie (Sheila Kelley), a conventionally attractive woman who can’t seem to catch a break in her dating life. Used often as comic relief with her over the top shenanigans, Debbie seems to unintentionally repel men. Now that I’m older, I think I relate to her the most. Well-intentioned, unfortunate love life, red nails, and an unmatched earring game. Yup. Luckily, she finds her happy ending…that is when she least expects it.
Over the course of the film, each of the six characters attempts to navigate love, life, and loss in their own way. The central relationship of Singles, the one between Steve and Linda, is an emotional roller coaster that’s heavier than it appears. During their relationship, Linda gets pregnant and agrees to marry Steve. Following a car accident, Linda loses their unborn child. Unsure of how to move forward in their relationship, Steve and Linda split up, Linda leaving for an extended work trip, then reconciling with an ex. An intelligent and empowered woman, Linda is exposed at her most vulnerable following the accident. Afraid of how she feels, Linda attempts to move on and bury her feelings for Steve.
On a lighter note, the self-involved Cliff realizes he needs Janet in his life. After Janet decides to enjoy singledom, Cliff notices how much he misses her encouragement and company. Maligned in by critics, and his band falling apart, Cliff realizes he doesn’t need all the bells and whistles of fame.
Of course, Singles offers a happy ending, with Steve and Linda reuniting, realizing they need the other. Well, maybe they don’t need each other, but there’s a realization that each person makes the other better. The same occurs with Janet and Cliff. To mention, once again, Cameron Crowe poses the question, “Is anybody truly single?”
Overall, Singles chronicles the lengths we go to for love and affection and a bit of connection. Crowe also reiterates the fact that we shouldn’t be alone. Before the movie concludes, everyone finds their own happily ever after and a place to call home. A unique spawn from Crowe’s and the Seattle music community’s own grief, Singles attempts to bring light back to a space marred by tragedy. Sadly, it would serve as an eery precedent for what was to come.
Filmed mostly in March and April of 1991 (With additional shoots added in 1992), Singles preceded the unforeseen “Seattle Boom” that would occur mere months later. Between the time filming wrapped and the time Singles premiered, landmark albums such as Soundgarden’s Badmotorfinger, Nirvana’s Nevermind, and Pearl Jam’s Ten would be unleashed on the world. A week after Singles premiered, Alice in Chains would release their sophomore masterpiece, Dirt.
I can’t help but wonder what Singles would have looked like without studio interference from Warner Brothers, and the need to appeal to a wider audience. The film was created with pure intentions but found itself swept into the tornado of the newly trendy Grunge movement and unintentionally became a vehicle for the genre’s mainstream success. Of course, with Warner Brothers looking to capitalize on the momentum, Singles became a flashy Hollywood affair complete with a major marketing campaign, MTV launch, and badass soundtrack to boot. The film was almost entitled Come As You Are, which was sparked by Nirvana’s monstrous success (who were asked to be in the film but declined).
Now 28-years-old, Singles is still fun to watch, but it leaves a bittersweet taste for rock fans, myself included. With three musical talents in the film now gone (Alice in Chains’ Layne Stayley and Mike Starr, and Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell) due to heart-wrenching circumstances, the film carries a larger emotional weight than during its initial release. A quiet tribute to the passage of time and recovering from loss, Singles runs home the fact that music and love heals. A signifier of happier times, Singles is a breath of fresh air and a reminder that we all need each other to get through hard times.