Cameron Crowe’s Singles is on the verge of its 30th birthday – and it’s a film whose soundtrack only enhances its reputation: we take a look/listen.
It’s hard to believe that it’s just a touch over 30 years ago since Pearl Jam released its debut album ‘Ten’ and Nirvana powered to the front of the grunge movement with the seminal ‘Nevermind’. But it did remind me that this means that it’s just over 29 years ago that arguably the best expression of that movement and moment in time, Singles, dropped into cinemas.
Singles was written, produced and directed by Cameron Crowe, who would later give us films such as Jerry Maguire, Almost Famous, and Vanilla Sky, and was released in September 1992.
Starring Bridget Fonda, Campbell Scott, Kyra Sedgwick and Matt Dillon, and based around the romantic liaisons of a small group of residents of a Seattle apartment block, the film is backed by a grunge-heavy OST featuring the best and greatest of the nascent trend that formed in the city.
Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, Mother Love Bone, Alice in Chains, Screaming Trees, Mudhoney… the soundtrack was a tribute to the musical scene that was taking the world by storm at that time – and this was helpful to both the film and to the bands involved.
It didn’t just recycle existing tunes either; the two tracks by Pearl Jam were previously unreleased which undoubtedly helped to shift the record, as it went platinum on its way into the top ten as one of the first big-selling soundtrack albums of the 1990s.
But the OST was more than just a chance to access new tracks. It helped the public to get a grip on what grunge was.
In any musical era, you can find bands and music from opposite sides of the spectrum lumped together into a singular label, and it can be difficult to discern what bands are core to a movement, and which ones are the hangers-on trying to ride the wave.
What the Singles soundtrack helped to do was to bring a collection of the best of the scene in one place, providing an introduction to early influences such as The Battle of Evermore by Led Zeppelin, covering the metal side of the equation with Soundgarden’s throaty ‘Birth Ritual’, and the giving Paul Westerberg from the Replacements a chance to soften the mood with his catchy, but lighter grunge-pop.
If you were a casual observer of the genre and interested in listening to a best of grunge album, it would be a pretty safe bet to buy this to cover all your bases in one hit.
Of course, the music didn’t stop with just the bands on the soundtrack album. In the film itself, there were songs by The Pixies, REM, The Cult and Jane’s Addiction propelling the story forward and giving additional emphasis. Though maybe it was the right decision not to put the track ‘Touch Me, I’m Dick’ (a nice riff on the Mudhoney original) by Matt Dillon’s band in the film, Citizen Dick, on the first release. That one would be saved for the re-release in 2017.
Even without Citizen Dick though, Rolling Stone felt strongly enough about the album to denote it a major milestone in the history of alternative rock, and included it on its list of 50 Greatest Grunge Albums in 2019. Given the competition and the fact that OSTs rarely find their way into these types of album-based rankings, this is high praise indeed.
Watching the film now, what stands out is how the soundtrack sets the tone of the movie. Crowe is a director that understands how to set to use music to convey atmosphere, and also to convey plot, as he does through the use of the Westerberg tracks ‘Waiting for Somebody’ and ‘Dyslexic Heart’ at opportune moments.
It also helps that the musicians themselves wanted in on the action and Crowe uses them to good effect. Alice in Chains get to perform live at a gig scene, whilst members of both Pearl Jam and Soundgarden are Matt Dillon’s Citizen Dick bandmates.
There is an elephant hiding in the room though, and that’s absence of the behemoth that is Nirvana. How could a grunge mixtape fail to include a single song by the band that was key to the movement breaking through to a mass audience?
Ultimately, it probably comes down to timing. ‘Nevermind’ was released in September 1992, three months after the release of the soundtrack. Although the rumours of a feud between Pearl Jam and Nirvana probably didn’t help, given the part of the members of the former in the film.
Happily, there’s more to the film than just the soundtrack. Whilst it didn’t do great business at the box office, it’s still a fond postcard to the Seattle and its inhabitants. And if you believe Cameron Crowe, it’s a precursor and inspiration for the sitcom Friends. You can see similarities, a group of six friends living together in an apartment block meet to talk love and romance in the coffee shop where Janet (Fonda) works.
But without the soundtrack, it’s a gently observed comedy-romance. A touch whimsical, but with characters that are easy to like. With the soundtrack, Singles is more than that. It’s a record of a time and of a place, of an era and of a sound that grew out of a city and took over the world.
Singles is a pivotal moment in music history. It birthed a mixtape that perfectly encapsulated the finest that Seattle and grunge offered and delivered that as a document for future generations to find and explore. Three decades later, it still sounds fantastic. In three decades more, I expect it will sound even better.
I’ll leave you with the album on Spotify…
Thank you for visiting! If you’d like to support our attempts to make a non-clickbaity movie website:
Buy our Film Stories and Film Stories Junior print magazines here.
Become a Patron here.