Cameron Crowe‘s film Singles, like few others in the 1990s, was set in a very specific moment. It was set in Seattle, in the early 1990s, at the height of the grunge era, at a time when Seattle — thanks to that music, as well as the rise of Starbucks and other touchstones — seemed like the center of the universe.
Shot during Nirvana and Pearl Jam’s debut year of 1991, Singles opened in September of 1992, 30 years ago this week. Written and directed by Cameron Crowe, tying together Crowe’s favorite themes of romance and rock music, with a surprising side of urban transportation policy wonkery.
Singles was Crowe’s follow-up to Say Anything, three years earlier, which updated the Crowe sensibility from the high school of Fast Times at Ridgemont High and Say Anything to adulthood.
Singles also had a structure familiar to Gen-X entertainment. Like Friends, which debuted two years later, it was an ensemble piece featuring a bunch of attractive white men and women in their 20s, in a big city, with a lot of dialogue about the strategy and philosophy of dating.
It’s a sweet and charming movie, which successfully makes Seattle a character while evoking a specific time and place. It’s a much better film than Reality Bites, another movie, two years later, that was clearly trying to be the voice of that generation.
That said, it’s a movie that might be more famous for its soundtrack than for anything that happens in the plot. That soundtrack featured early tunes by Smashing Pumpkins and Screaming Trees, as well as Chris Cornell’s great solo track “Seasons” and some solo work from longtime Replacements frontman Paul Westerberg.
That plot features the protagonist and likely Crowe surrogate named Steve Dunne (Campbell Scott), a young city planner with an ambitious plan for a Seattle Supertrain, the sort of project meant to appeal to a city where everyone is a young hipster who loves coffee and music. The Supertrain of Steve’s dreams was never built, but Seattle did get a light rail line in 2009.
He begins dating Linda (Kyra Sedgwick), and they have a relationship of one-upmanship involving who does and doesn’t call back (between this and Swingers, that was also a frequent movie plot point in the ’90s, as were multiple, cringy answering machine messages). Their relationship segues into a pregnancy scare, leading up to the deployment of a movie trope called “miscarriage ex machina,” because romantic comedies in the ’90s weren’t permitted abortion subplots.
The other couple in the film is between a hilarious rock Cliff (Matt Dillon) and barista Janet (Bridget Fonda); Cliff’s band, “Citizen Dick,” consists of most of Pearl Jam, and Cliff’s gibberish media interviews are an incisive parody of everything Kurt Cobain and Eddie Vedder said in the media in the early days of grunge:
Singles may not be Cameron Crowe’s best film — when it comes to honoring romance and music while evoking a specific time, Almost Famous has it beat — but it truly captured that brief moment in popular culture. That said, I’d love to see a filmmaker take a crack at a period treatment of grunge and Seattle. And if they can work the “swinging on the flippity flop” thing into it, all the better.