In tribute to Kurt Cobain: February 20, 1967 – April 5, 1994
First, there was Rick Van Ryan, the malcontent, social injustice warrior VJ of Incident at Channel Q. Then, when the metal ’80s buckled to the grungy ’90s, the Catcher In the Rye-styled, disenfranchised Generation X’ers of America needed a new hero: they got Cliff Spab.
If Cliff Spab had been a pirate radio DJ, he would have been “Hard Harry” in Pump Up the Volume. If Cliff had gone to college, became enchanted with the campus radio station, and took the course titles “Interdisciplinary Approaches to Ethnicity,” he would have been Maxwell Glass in A Matter of Degrees. A well-read, apathetic convenience store clerk: he’d be Dante Hicks (well, maybe more Randal Graves) in Clerks. If Dustin Hoffman’s Ben Braddock from The Graduate had been a hippie: he’d be Spab. A filmmaker: he’d be Alan Shapiro in duBeat-eo—each expounding the same Holden Caulfield nihilism-cum-Abbie Hoffman anarchism. And, is it just me, but is Ethan Hawke’s Troy Dyer from 1994’s Reality Bites just a little too close-for-comfort-Spab coincidental?
R.E.M’s Michael Stipe produced (Welcome to the Dollhouse, Velvet Goldmine), along with noted rock video producer Sigurjon Sighvatsson (Hard Rock Zombies, American Drive-In), this loose adaptation of Andrew Wellman’s satiric Generation X novel that explores the price of fame colliding with reckless tabloid journalism. Stephen Dorff (while he played the role younger, he made his big screen debut in 1987 at the age of 14 in the “No False Metal” classic The Gate; he recently wrapped the first season of FOX-TV’s Deputy) is the apathetic-reluctant hero, Cliff Spab, whose “catch phases”—his stock answer to everything is “So Fucking What?”—during his captivity of a televised hostage crisis, transforms him into a media sensation—and his unwanted, new found fame serves as a bigger prison than his previous apathetic fast-food worker lifestyle (apparent in the novel; lost in the movie).
In this tale of youth alienation, Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers goes grunge as Spab becomes a nation anti-hero after surviving for 36 days as one of five hostages in a non-descript, suburban Detroit convenience store by a gang of armed, camera-wielding terrorists—complete in white janitor-jumpsuits and stocking masks—who force the networks to carry the crisis in its entirety on the air. When Spab and his childhood friend, Joe Dice, kill the terrorists (and Dice dies in the process), Spab becomes a media sensation, alongside fellow hostage Wendy, an upper-class girl (Reese Witherspoon), splashed across the covers of magazines and reported on TV ad nauseam.
The novel’s writer, Andrew Wellman, at the age of 21, won the 1989 Playboy College Fiction Award and was quickly signed by Random House. The publisher then took the “unfinished” award-winning manuscript “The Madison Heights Syndrome,” (at a breezy 147 pages, the book is more novella than as the novel it is marketed), and chose a truncated version of the Spab character’s oft-repeated dismissive as the new title. And, because of the book’s timely correlation to the grunge ethos sweeping America, the book was marketed for a movie deal. If you read the now out-of-print book (my local library still has a copy), you’ll discover Wellman’s social commentary analogous to the voice of Bret Easton Ellis, whose (awesome) novels of disenfranchised malcontents—Less Than Zero (1985), The Rules of Attraction (1987), and, to a lesser extent, American Psycho (1991)—were adapted into films (that were more successful than S.F.W.).
Sadly, as is the case with cinematic adaptations of books-to-screenplays, an author’s flights-of-fancy narratives must be compressed, with events and characters composited and sanitized to the Hollywood screenwriting standard of 90 to 110 pages. As result, the film loses Wellman’s effective analogy regarding the sensationalistic tendencies of film by having Spab hiding out inside an abandoned movie theatre—where the character relates his story in flashbacks (just a like a movie).
Luckily, the film retained the book’s character of Morrow Streeter (an excellent Jake Busey; the jarhead “Ace Levy” in Starship Troopers), Spab’s shady-violent friend who’s prone to gay-bashing and pulling guns on and urinating on girlfriends (toned down for the film, natch). Another film highlight alongside Busey’s is Richard Portnow’s (Howard Stern’s dad in Private Parts) FBI agent who’s utterly convinced the store siege was an elaborate ruse perpetrated by Spab.
Another creative, celluloid choice that stifled the power of Wellman’s book is the film’s awkward “message” on consumerism—by stocking the non-descript convenience store with similarly non-descript, white-packaged generic item (e.g., cans of soup say “soup,” paper towels, say “paper towels” with no brand names). The “artistic” images and its related “message” flat lines on the screen.
And what’s the deal with Gary Coleman from TV’s Diff’rent Strokes being cast (it’s not in the book) alongside the clumsy-uncomfortable Tori Spelling-clone (aka, the sexually-degradingly named “Dori Smelling”) in the “TV movie version” of the hostage crisis? And there’s Levy’s “in-joke” with one of his previous film’s characters from Inside Monkey Zetterland (played by Steve Antin) appearing. What’s the point? What’s the message? The self-deprecation—especially Coleman’s—falls flat. (As a kid actor, Dorff starred in an episode of Diff’rent Strokes; were they still friends and did he bring Coleman onto film?)
Then there’s the . . . well, I can best describe it as the “Eddie Murphy Coming to America gag”—via the casting of John Roarke (lots of network TV series, but I remember him best from the truly awful sci-fi comedy rental, 1989’s Mutant on the Bounty) as the thinly-disguised clones of popular, real-life celebrity journalists Alan Dershowitz, Phil Donahue, Sam Donaldson, Ted Koppel, and Larry King. True, Roarke is a very talented impressionist-mimic, but unlike Eddie Murphy’s work (also in The Nutty Professor), it’s obvious to the viewer it’s the same actor in each of the rolls. We’re not fooled. And telling us that the “distortion” of the celebrity reporters are being filtered through “Spab’s point of view” doesn’t sell it either. Why would he “distort” reporters in his mind to look like Phil Donahue? The gag induces groans and any intentions at contemporary hipness are a total loss; the film would have been better served by playing it straight via casting an array of actors as faux-celebrity news hacks.
In the end the Coleman and Roarke celluloid subterfuges negate the film’s goal: the irony of the media complex transforming tragedies (e.g. 9-11) into television “programming” and then dipping in their hands in the tills a second time with their post-adaptations of those misfortunes with biographical and fictional films (World Trade Center, United 93).
S.F.W. was written by Danny Rubin (Bill Murray’s Groundhog Day) and directed by Jefrey Levy. Levy’s career began with the multiple award-winning, 1991 independent feature Drive (starring David Warner, of From Beyond the Grave and Ice Cream Man, as an acidic, middle-aged Brit reduced to chauffeuring the rich, liberal elite). During your mid-‘90s HBO excursions, you may have come across Levy’s feature film debut proper, Inside Monkey Zetterland (1992), a semi-autobiographical tale about an out-of-work gay screenwriter in Hollywood. That film starred Steve Antin (“Jessie” of Rick Springfield’s video hit single, the teen comedy The Last American Virgin, Don Coscarelli’s post-Phantasm flick Survival Quest, and three seasons on TV’s NYPD Blue; he wrote and directed the 2010 Christina Aguilera and Cher-starring bomb, Burlesque).
After the failure of S.F.W., Levy rebounded with a successful directing career on U.S network television and self-produced a couple of never-heard-of-them, low-budget indie flicks. Rubin, after writing the Marlee Matlin and Martin Sheen-starring Hear No Evil (1993), vanished from the business.
At the time of S.F.W.’s release, grunge was all the rage and the major label record companies and film studios couldn’t sit back and allow the indie label network (Homestead! Dutch East! SST! Caroline!) and college radio stations (staffed with guys like me) that birthed the alt-rock ‘90s in the first place, rake in all the dough. So began a corporate synergy to create a plethora of soundtrack-film hybrids with the likes of the aforementioned A Matter of Degrees, along with Kevin Smith’s Clerks (the soundtrack clearances cost more than the film itself), and Ben Stiller’s Reality Bites. The only problem: the soundtracks for most of these films featuring the then college radio and MTV 120 Minutes and IRS: The Cutting Edge darlings—especially in the case of A Matter of Degrees—were more successful than the box office bomb movies they promoted. And the S.F.W. soundtrack is no exception.
“Jesus Christ Pose” — Soundgarden
“Get Your Gunn” — Marilyn Manson
“Can I Stay?” — Pretty Mary Sunshine
“Teenage Whore” — Hole
“Negasonic Teenage Warhead” — Monster Magnet
“Like Suicide (Acoustic Version)” — Chris Cornell
“No Fuck’n Problem” — Suicidal Tendencies
“Surrender” — Paw
“Creep” — Radiohead
“Two at a Time” — Cop Shoot Cop
“Say What You Want” — Babes in Toyland
“S.F.W.” — GWAR
Three songs appearing in the film but not on the soundtrack (clearance issues) are the Ronnie James Dio-era of Ritchie Blackmore’s Rainbow with “A Light in the Black” (featured in the trailer), Australia’s Mantissa with “Mary, Mary” (they appear via their rock video on TV), and Ireland’s Therapy? with “Speedball.” And while they make an appearance via a “Spab Tribute Concert” and spew some dialog, Babes in Toyland do not perform their soundtrack contribution. (Personally, we could have done without the Coleman bit and had Babes in Toyland “live” on stage; the Cheap Trick original of “Surrender” (which could have been a nice homage to the similarly themed, juvenile delinquent flick Over the Edge (a Kurt Cobain favorite) on the soundtrack, and had Paw represented by their then popular tunes of “The Bridge” or “Jessie.”)
And there was one more song that was planned to be included in the film. And if this chain-of-events sounds a lot like Cameron Crowe wanting to include “Smells Like Teen Spirit” in his 1992 grunge-flick entry Singles . . . then it probably is.
In the pages of a June 1994 issue of Entertainment Weekly (yes, the studio put their full marketing gauntlet behind the film), director Jefrey Levy spoke of the Cliff Spab-to-Kurt Cobain parallels, as both were just regular kids with extraordinary sensitivity thrust into extraordinary circumstances. So, to that end, Levy wanted to include Nirvana’s then hit single, “All Apologies,” from the band’s third album, In Utero.
Levy stated that while Cobain responded positively to the movie, he failed to acquire formal permission to include the song due to Cobain’s suicide (on April 5, 1994) shortly after. Levy did, however, as a consolation prize, was able to include the song “Teenage Whore” from Kurt’s widow, Courtney Love and her band Hole (for the scuzzy-love scene between Spab and Joey Lauren Adams’s Monica Dice). Cobain’s peripheral attachment to the film took on an eerie quality when Love, during the televised park vigil reading of Cobain’s suicide note, kept chastising Cobain with the term “So fucking what?” over and over.
And did that Cobain connection, in conjunction with the soundtrack that our favorite college radio DJs spun ‘n plugged (as with A Matter of Degrees and Clerks) make us rent the VHS copy, then search out Andrew Wellman’s book? Yep!
So W.T.F.? There’s no online rips? No TubiTV freebies? Not even a PPV over on Amazon? Denied. So, in addition to the official trailer upload, you can check out these film clips on You Tube: trauma, guest VJ, Tobey Maquire stoned, and Cliff Spab’s philosophy. You can also enjoy a soundtrack re-creation on You Tube.
What’s that? You need more grunge? Then check out our tribute to ’90s Gen-X films with “Exploring: 50 Gen-X Grunge Films of the Alt-Rock ‘90s,” which we also touch on, in part, with our tribute to radio stations on film: “Exploring: Radio Stations on Film.” And, speaking of box office failures (S.F.W.‘s total box office take was less than $65,000 against an unknown eight-digit budget), we explored a week of those films with our recent “Box Office Failures Week.”
And, with that, we’ll catch you on the “flippity flop,” Kurt.
About the Author: You can read the music and film reviews of R.D Francis on Medium and learn more about his work on Facebook.