Buy the Soundtrack, Skip the Movie : Singles (1992)
Today, we're going to talk about Singles. Not the cheese slices, but the 1992 movie that's been sort of lost to history. Singles has a sizable reputation in music culture, but a nonexistent reputation in film circles, sort of like Heavy Metal. And also like this movie, it takes a lot of explaining.
If you want to follow along with this movie and don't see any convenient streaming options, the Internet Archive has you covered. Yes, it's one of those movies where nobody else wants to bother showing it.
Cameron Crowe Wanted To Make a Grunge Movie
In today's media, Cameron Crowe gets put up as one of the great Generation X movie directors, because he wrote the screenplay for Fast Times At Ridgemont High. Granted, that movie was popular, but even at the time, nobody took it for a great classic. It was a dumb high school stoner comedy without any plot. Yet Crowe to this day gets compared with the likes of John Hughes. Yes, really! Listen, if you can't see the difference between Fast Times At Ridgemont High and The Breakfast Club, I don't know what prescription to even write you.
To this day, Cameron Crowe has just 15 writer credits on IMDB and two of those are back-to-back Tom Cruise movies. But he makes a lot more sense when you find out that Crowe is Rolling Stone alumni, getting his start as a music beat reporter. Thus, a character early on is shown reading Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung by the almighty Lester Bangs, whom we've already fan-bleated about within these august pages. The book insert is pretty rough, because by the end of this movie you are positive that none of these characters have the intellectual capacity to digest one of Lester Bangs' rambling paragraphs. Nevertheless, anybody who's seen Crowe's Almost Famous (and Philip Seymour Hoffman's turn as Lester Bangs) will not be surprised to encounter yet another homage.
Let's just get the ugly part out of the way…
Weaknesses of Singles
The movie itself is pretty brainless, following a meandering cast of young adults around as they try way too hard to be either a prototype of F·R·I·E·N·D·S or the west coast's precursor to Sex and the City. The lack of plot leaves us obsessively following a bunch of hook-up relationships which go mostly nowhere. Every single conversation revolves around hetero relationships, as if guards were in place at the theater entrance to frisk people for copies of the Bechdel Test. Worse, major characters are introduced breaking the fourth wall to monologue at the camera as they introduce us to the complicated snags of finding potential breeding partners. It's a movie about a bunch of milky-white, rootless, urban, nowhere-people fretting about whom they're going to spawn with.
It's just this, all movie long. Every time a new character comes on screen, you're moaning, "Oh look, here's somebody else's love life I don't give a rip about." If this movie was about an ant farm it would have me more invested.
Through no fault of her own, this movie stars Bridget Fonda, who only five years later would do the dirty deed standing up with Robert De Niro in Jackie Brown, and now that's a thing you know. Here, she is mostly apologetic for not being Julia Roberts, despite having more talent in her little finger than Roberts has in her whole body. However, it's the rest of this cast that steals the show, upon which we elaborate in the strengths section coming up.
People praise Cameron Crowe now for having his finger on the pulse of 1992, bringing the hottest up-to-the-second takes on a music scene that had just been born the day after Kurt Cobain strummed his first chord. The truth is, Crowe's first draft of this script was written in 1984, and set in Phoenix, Arizona. Picture Singles without Seattle or the emergence of the grunge music genre, and it loses its shine really fast. Now you can see that this is basically Fast Times II with no new ideas, which was then hastily repainted as a Seattle, Washington story with grunge stenciled on.
With the obligatory spanking out of the way, let's move on to the aftercare and examine why we care about this movie at all…
Strengths of Singles as a Cultural Museum
Obviously, the soundtrack is the showcase of the show:
As you can see, you can pretty much stop caring about the rest of the movie when it has a soundtrack like this. Not only that, but we have cameos! Alice in Chains performs in a club scene, and they refused to accept miming to their own pre-recorded music, so they played in the film live. Chris Cornell of Soundgarden wrote actual songs under the made-up titles of the movie's fictitious band "Citizen Dick," which also has some mock interviews with the band members in the film, giving it a This Is Spinal Tap vibe.
Not only that, but Eddie Vedder, Stone Gossard, and Jeff Ament, all from Pearl Jam, play three members of the fictitious band Citizen Dick, in something that's close to the movie's only non-breeding-related plot material. Citizen Dick is used as a vehicle to take pot-shots at grunge music, with parody titles you'll recognize if you own an album or ten by any of the soundtrack bands. It also gives them license to make lots of jokes with the word "dick" in them.
The movie's relentless pursuit of grunge aesthetics prompted Entertainment Weekly to deem Singles as "Seattle Night Fever." In fact, the soundtrack was released a full three months before the movie, which was a deliberate move on the studio's part. I approve both of these decisions. Verily, the movie knows its fate even while they were shooting; rock concert posters are plastered on every visible surface to take your mind off the tedious lines by the principles.
So that's Singles (1992), a forgettable script, but an absolute landmark of a time capsule film capturing Seattle's grunge revolution. See it for the bands and music, and maybe for the nostalgic flannel fashion palette plus the cozy coffee shop atmosphere.