For those of us of a certain age, the summer and fall of 1991 was the first adult step into the big, bad flannel-clad world. As children of the Pacific Northwest we already owned the appropriate attire for the coming Grunge™ revolution: shorts, long johns, combat boots, Chuck Taylors, berets and, of course, the ubiquitous button-up flannel shirts of our fathers. The band that had guided us to this point wasn't Nirvana or Soundgarden or Pearl Jam; the band was Mudhoney. Why? Because these guys weren't intimidating. They looked like us and we looked up to them as the cool older brothers we never had. As Soundgarden guitarist Kim Thayil says of the band in the documentary I'm Now: The Story of Mudhoney, "They are the people who would be watching them."
Directors Ryan Short and Adam Pease are no strangers to the musical lore of Seattle, having told the story of the Seattle-by-way-of-Idaho band Tad in 2008's TAD: Busted Circuits and Ringing Ears. They begin I'm Now with an eloquent, no-bull quote from Mudhoney lead vocalist Mark Arm who says, "Any time you're playing music for the crowd instead of yourself, you're fucked." That's been the band's ethos from the beginning, and as we are introduced to record executives, music writers, friends and quotable luminaries such as the Circle Jerks' Keith Morris, Pearl Jam's Jeff Ament and record producer Jack Endino, we learn that Mudhoney may be the only band besides Fugazi to never completely surrender to the corporatocracy of the music industry.
Without saying as much, I'm Now functions as an abbreviated history of the rise of grunge. Because Mudhoney is often credited with being one of the first, if not the original grunge band, this is unavoidable. (Some would argue that Green River, a project with Stone Gossard and Ament of Pearl Jam, is the first. I'm not sure if I agreeI could argue it either way.) Narratively, the film follows the band from its earliest beginnings, when Arm and guitarist Steve Turner played in their first band, Mr. Epp and the Calculations, which Arm began while in high school. Watching Mudhoney grow up is a window into how the music industry works. It's a look at the dynamics of fame. The film avoids the pitfalls of a VH1 "Behind the Music" documentary mainly because there isn't too much controversy surrounding Mudhoney; although, the filmmakers and band do clearly mock the melodrama of the form with slow, swelling music as Arm and the band casually discuss his heroin use, his multiple overdoses and subsequent recovery. As the band always tried to avoid musical and personal clichés, Arm admits, in a self-aware way, to at one time being "a rock guy, on heroin, going out with a stripper."
While the film is full of fun and nostalgic scenes of kids mosh-pitting with bad shoes and worse haircuts, it is at its best during the more recent one-on-one interviews with band members. Turner and Arm were always seen as the leaders, but drummer Dan Peters and bassist Matt Lukin steal the show. Peters humbly shares his brushes with fame as the almost-drummer of Nirvana and Screaming Trees, while Lukin, looking about 20 years older than the other guys, cements the band's reputation as "regular Joes" who down beers and live by their own code. The kindness and humor of these guys is what drives the movie.
Mudhoney was never as big as some of its Seattle and Sub Pop Records cohorts and that seems fine with the band. If you're looking to hear complaints about fame and taxes or how the wrong people made it to the top, you won't find that here. What you'll find in this film is a band that didn't take itself too seriously, that drank more than it should and that made fun of and upset Sonic Youth while on tour with them. They were sometimes immature, but they made music how they wanted to make it. This film deftly captures the band's tenor and the kind of solid friendships that have allowed them to continue grunge-rocking for the last 25 years.
I'm Now: The Story of Mudhoney screens at the Crystal Theater, 515 S. Higgins Ave., on Sat., Sept. 29, at 7 and 9:30 PM, with a filmmaker Q&A following each screening. $10. Visit mudhoneymovie.com. Mudhoney opens for Pearl Jam at the Adams Center on Sun., Sept. 30, at 7:30 PM.