30 Years Later, Singles Is Better as a Snapshot of 1990s Grunge than as a Movie

Originally, Nirvana was supposed to contribute a song to the singles soundtrack, just like their then-contemporaries Soundgarden, Pearl Jam, and Smashing Pumpkins. However, Nevermind exploded, and by then the rights to any of Nirvana’s music had become prohibitively expensive. Maybe it’s just as well: the band confessed in an MTV interview that they didn’t really like “rock n’ roll movies” and that the script could have been set anywhere.

They had a point, too. singles was re-worked from a screenplay Cameron Crowe had written before his directorial debut classic Say Anything…, itself set in the Seattle ‘burbs. The filmmaker had been a resident for years, was a fan of groups like TAD and Mother Love Bone, and was sincerely “paying tribute to a city and a feeling,” as he told Rolling Stone. singles got accused of being an obvious cash grab when it was finally released in theaters circa 1992, but it had actually been sitting on a studio shelf for a minute. That is, until the bands in the movie began selling millions of albums and, well, singles. Warner Brothers released the film only when they were sure the soundtrack could capitalize on the commercial success of the “Seattle sound.”

The real location shoots and tons of musician cameos give singles a ring of authenticity. Three Pearl Jam members make up the fake band Citizen Dick alongside Matt Dillon, SubPop founder Bruce Pavitt and Tad appear briefly, and Soundgarden and Alice in Chains get to perform some big, bare-chested numbers in crowded clubs. (Even Tom Skeritt, a longtime Seattle resident, is in on the action as the city’s apathetic mayor.) Crowe’s script also centers around a Capitol Hill apartment block of “singles” where most of the main characters live and interact.

All of this is to say that the movie should feel like the ultimate Pacific Northwest hangout flick…but it doesn’t. singles isn’t a bad film exactly, yet it doesn’t quite work as either a portrait of hip urban twentysomethings, or as a paean to the Emerald City. This is clearly still the work of the guy who made the teens in Say Anything… feel so thoughtful and human. But Crowe is also working with much blander characters whose stories rarely dovetail with the city he clearly loves, and when they do, it’s often flat out tedious. (Once Linda tells him she prefers driving, you’re just waiting for Steve’s “Supertrain” idea to flunk.)

singles‘ Main flaw might just be in the main characters of Steve and Linda, as well as Campbell Scott and Kyra Sedgwick’s respective casting. Both are terrible actors, but as the Blank check podcast pointed out, they permanently seem “47 years old.” They always feel like parentsespecially Scott, whose strong young dad vibes don’t remotely fit with a guy who owns London Calling on vinyl and has seen Mudhoney a few times now. (Depp was offered the Steve part, which unfortunately makes much more sense.) When Linda gets pregnant and Steve proposes, it doesn’t come off like two young people in a difficult situation. Instead it feels hilariously natural.

But Steve and Linda’s plot is also really, really boring, even infuriating. I’m autistic, and one of the notes I took while watching reads “this is some neurotypical nonsense” because it is. Instead of talking about their insecurities, or how they feel about each other, or about anything, Steve and Linda break up with each other repeatedly and second guess the other person’s decisions. When Steve doesn’t call Linda for four days (god forbid), she brushes him off, then…uses the shirt he left there to clean her toilet? Crowe wants to say something in this plot about communication in the 1990s—answering machines, unspoken rules, and payphones are all key to their story—but at a certain point, the viewer’s merely waiting for them to stop being idiots.

Bridget Fonda and Matt Dillon as Janet and Cliff are examples, meanwhile, of how good casting can make a predictable romance still work. The forthright, likable Janet and long-haired Cliff, seen lying back next to Jimi Hendrix’s grave, feel like real Capitol Hill residents in 1992. They actively seem young and impulsive and a bit silly, especially Dillon’s perma-stoned, pompous rocker. (The scene where Cliff explains at length how “’Touch Me, I’m Dick’, in essence, speaks for itself” is one of the funniest in the movie.) If Scott and Sedgwick feel like they’re putting on costumes to be here, Fonda in every scene is a 23 year old Seattle barista working out her own agency as a person apart from this stupid.

Years after the release of singles, Cameron Crowe mused about the irony of Cliff’s line about Citizen Dick being huge in Belgium. By the time the movie came out, Seattle bands really were hitting it big across the world, and this helped make singles a modest success at the box office. City newspaper The Stranger accused the film of using the music scene for a profit, but that wasn’t remotely the intent here. singles didn’t know how to make the story fit the city’s milieu, but the film and its soundtrack were lightning in a bottle, accidentally capturing a cultural moment before it became legend. However, that wouldn’t even be singles‘ biggest legacy. Crowe turned down Warners’ offer to make the film a sitcom, but the studio May have adapted parts of the story anyway. There was still a hip coffee shop, but now the show was set in New York. Plus they had a better title now, still simple, but it easily fit the trials and tribulations of young twentysomethings together in the city: friend.


CM Crockford is a Philly-based neurodivergent writer with poems, articles, stories published in various outlets. You can find him on Twitter and find his other work at cmcrockford.com.

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