It contained a who’s who of grunge artists in its soundtrack (as well as new compositions from an outright alternative rock legend). It showcased a generation in a realistically confused way. It inspired the television behemoth Friends. Despite all of these plus points, the movie Singles hasn’t quite carried the legacy it deserves. This year, its snapshot of 1990s, Generation X-strewn America will celebrate its twenty-fifth anniversary, and it is high time it deserved some renewed praise.
Singles served as a product of its time, but it is what has come after that has made its legacy more appealing. The film was written and directed by Cameron Crowe, who would later go on to cement his place in the Hollywood pantheon with Jerry Maguire and Vanilla Sky (both starring Tom Cruise, no less). It featured a cameo from another directorial titan, Tim Burton, whose legacy thereafter needs no introduction. It helped propel the careers of Matt Dillon and Bridget Fonda. These factors help give Singles more of an assured place within the celluloid world, but even when assessed on its own merits, Singles is much more than a time capsule.
In fact, take Singles‘ plot and position it into another era and there would be proof that the backdrop isn’t a case of turd polishing. Granted, the flannel shirts, the appearances from Pearl Jam and a reliance on garage door opening buttons would need to be written out among the meme-drenched, Buzzfeed countdowns of the ’10s, but the awkward push and pull of a new relationship, the aloof and cocksure man, the women trying to fit in and accept themselves for who they are – all of these traits still, sadly, play out in the present day. Only the music has changed…somewhat.
Romantic comedies can be an awkward beast to tame – rely too heavily on the romance and you end up with a story as slushy as Gerard Butler’s ski boots. On the flip side, rely too much on the comedy and you wonder why the couple are even together in the first place. For Singles, Crowe manages to provide a realistic and relatable series of situations for twentysomethings, without it ever falling into sentimentality or shoehorned wisecracks. It is also refreshingly delivered in a bitesized, episodic format, taking us from couple to couple, problem to problem, and allowing each story to breathe.
The trailers tell you that one of the key couples is Janet (Fonda) and Cliff (Dillon), and from the offset they are all wrong for one another. Janet is struggling as a coffee shop barista (as an unsurprising sidenote, the movie is also set in Seattle) while Cliff’s grunge band Citizen Dick are struggling to crack the country. In truth, though, the most appealing story that plays out is the one between Linda (Kyra Sedgwick) and Steve (Campbell Scott). Both have the bruised melancholy of a string of failed relationships (some played out on camera, some not), both are beginning to feel the turbulent impact of adulthood and are thrown together in an endearing fashion.
Their romance is allowed to play out in a subtle but convincing way, but crushingly one of the most realistic facets is the doubt that begins to creep into Steve’s mind. To call or not to call. To come on strong or remain taciturn. All of those worries have lingered in our conscious at some point, but here it isn’t hackneyed or predictable – the scene in which Steve’s friends begin issuing predictably awful advice about dominance and playing it cool has no doubt been played out in millions of living rooms and bars.
We get to follow these young couples throughout this process, and while there are no real revelations that occur, this helps with the relatability. These are young and confused people with nothing in their fridges, tonnes of records from when they were college DJs and the only real friends they have are the ones that have moved in across the hall. Jobs are lost, accidents happen, people move away, people come back – it’s not just a postcard of an era, but of real life.
The brilliance of Singles is its relationship, not reliance on, with the world around it. Seattle’s earthy, grunge-fuelled scenery plays out like a flannel-flecked polaroid, while Steve and Linda actually meet at an Alice in Chains concert.
Which brings us to the soundtrack. The Smashing Pumpkins, not quite yet the globe-gobbling rock stars they would become, recorded a track, but the real highlights come in the form of former Replacements stalwart Paul Westerberg. ‘Dyslexic Heart’ is a fittingly sweet, brittle jangle that uses his weary timbre to winning perfection, while ‘Waiting for Somebody’ has a lamentable, breezy guitar crunch that’s urgent and elegiac in equal measure. Further props are awarded for the soundtrack including the twinkling motifs of R.E.M.’s ‘Radio Song’, the irrepressible riff of The Cult’s ‘She Sells Sanctuary’ and, of course, a smattering of Pearl Jam classics.
In terms of Generation X movies, Ben Stiller’s Reality Bites may be one of the first films that springs to mind, but while Singles arrived a lot sooner, it pips the former in terms of a sparkling script, likeable, relatable characters, and a setting that’s pivotal without being dependent.