30 years later, The Singles is better as a snapshot of 1990s grunge than a movie

30 years later, The Singles is better as a snapshot of 1990s grunge than a movie
30 years later, The Singles is better as a snapshot of 1990s grunge than a movie

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

They were right too. Simple was reworked from a script Cameron Crowe wrote before his classic directorial debut Say anything…, itself located in the suburbs of Seattle. The filmmaker had been a resident for years, was a fan of bands like TAD and Mother Love Bone, and “honestly paid homage to a city and a feeling,” as he told Rolling Stone. Simple was accused of being an obvious cash grab when it finally hit theaters around 1992, but it actually sat on a studio shelf for a minute. That is, until bands in the movie started selling millions of albums and, finally, singles. Warner Brothers only released the film when they were sure the soundtrack could capitalize on the commercial success of the “Seattle sound”.

The live action shots and tons of musician cameos give Simple a ring of authenticity. Three members of Pearl Jam form the fake group Citizen Dick alongside Matt Dillon, SubPop founder Bruce Pavitt and Tad appear briefly, and Soundgarden and Alice in Chains can play big shirtless numbers in crowded clubs. (Even Tom Skeritt, a longtime Seattle resident, gets in on the action as the city’s apathetic mayor.) Crowe’s storyline also centers on a Capitol Hill “bachelor” building where most of the characters principals live and interact.

All this to say that the film should feeling like the ultimate Pacific Northwest hangout movie…but it’s not. Simple isn’t exactly a bad movie, but it doesn’t quite work as a portrait of hipster urban twentysomethings, or as a hymn to the Emerald City. It’s clearly still the work of the guy who made the teenagers in Say anything… to feel so caring and human. But Crowe also works with much more bland characters whose stories rarely match the town he clearly loves, and when they do, it’s often tedious. (Once Linda tells him she’d rather drive, you just wait for Steve’s “Supertrain” idea to fail.)


Simple‘The main flaw may well be in the lead characters of Steve and Linda, as well as the respective cast of Campbell Scott and Kyra Sedgwick. Both are terrific actors, but like the Blank check podcast pointed out, they permanently look “47”. They always seem Parentsespecially Scott, whose strong young dad vibes don’t remotely match up with a guy who owns London calling on vinyl and have seen Mudhoney a few times now. (Depp was offered the role of Steve, which sadly makes a lot more sense.) When Linda gets pregnant and Steve proposes, it doesn’t happen like two young people in a tough spot. Instead, it looks hilariously natural.

But Steve and Linda’s plot is also really, really boring, even infuriating. I have autism, and one of the notes I took while watching said “that’s neurotypical nonsense” because it is. Instead of talking about their insecurities, or how they feel about each other, or anything, Steve and Linda repeatedly break up and second guess the other person’s decisions. When Steve doesn’t call Linda for four days (heaven forbid), she pushes him away, then… uses the shirt he left there to clean his toilet? Crowe means something in this plot about communication in the 1990s – answering machines, unspoken rules and payphones are all essential to their story – but at some point the viewer simply waits for them to stop being idiots.

Bridget Fonda and Matt Dillon as Janet and Cliff are examples, meanwhile, of how a good cast can make a predictable romance work. The outspoken and likeable long-haired Janet and Cliff, seen lying next to Jimi Hendrix’s grave, feel like real-life residents of Capitol Hill in 1992. They look actively young and impulsive and a bit silly, especially the pompous rocker and permastone from Dillon. (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 to put on costumes to be here, Fonda in every scene is a 23-year-old barista from Seattle working at her own agency as someone outside of this doof.

Years after the release of Simple, Cameron Crowe mused on the irony of Cliff’s line about Citizen Dick being huge in Belgium. By the time the movie came out, Seattle bands were hitting really hard across the world, and that helped make Simple a modest success at the box office. City newspaper The Stranger accused the film of using the music scene for profit, but that was not the intention here at all. Simple didn’t know how to fit the story in the middle of the city, but the film and its soundtrack were lightning bolts in a bottle, accidentally capturing a cultural moment before it became legend. However, that wouldn’t even be Simple‘ the greatest 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 cafe, but now the show was in New York. Plus, they had a better title now, still simple, but it easily matched the trials and tribulations of 20-somethings together in the city: Friends.



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

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