Thirteen years ago, former Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic's wife threw him a surprise birthday party. For entertainment, she hired Yva Las Vegass, a Venezuelan-born, lesbian singer-songwriter. Novoselic was so smitten, he implored Yva to join Sweet 75, his first post-Nirvana musical outing. In another world, Sweet 75 would be like the Foo Fighters, selling out stadiums. And then what happened?
The Life and Times of Yva Las Vegass Egyptian: 9:15 p.m. Mon., May 28. Not rated. 80 minutes.
Portland filmmaker Wiley Underdown explains: "Three years ago, I was up in Seattle visiting some friends, and I was walking down the street. I heard this woman playing, and was just blown away. Based on the amount of noise that she could produce, I expected to see this larger-than-life character—and here was this small woman with a Mohawk, singing her ass off. After she got done playing, she pressured me into buying both of her CDs. We went and got drinks, and instinctually, I just knew there was a story there."
That story, making its world premiere at SIFF, is The Life and Times of Yva Las Vegass, a documentary that provides a cautionary tale for any musician on the cusp. Las Vegass once had a three-record deal with Geffen and the same manager as Nirvana. So why hasn't anyone heard of her?
"She completely blew it because of a lot of factors that become pretty apparent in the movie," says Underdown. Her off-putting behavior led drummer Bobbie Laurie to leave the band after a few shows, even though "this was his big break," as noted in the film.
Those looking for more dirt on anything Nirvana- and Cobain-related will be disappointed. Underdown devotes only a small portion of the film to Yva's Sweet 75 years, intentionally. "It's a character study about Yva as opposed to a Novoselic/Nirvana thing. That was just a chapter in Yva's life. It's really easy to lose track of the subject when you're talking about a lot of famous people. So I intentionally tried to avoid that as much as possible."
Instead, the film catches Yva in her daily activities. Her gorgeous, soul-stirring singing on the street and with local Latin outfit Children of the Revolution is showcased throughout the doc. When she plays music, she evokes rumbling and life and mayhem. When she flies off the handle, she seems a parody of the self-indulgent artistic temperament, one of the more painful-to-watch bitches ever put to the screen, a car wreck with a guitar.
Life and Times features interviews with current friends and fellow musicians that Underdown culled from three years of following Yva. She's shown playing in the Pike Place Market and outside Nordstrom, parading outside of the Wildrose, painting her face odd colors, and generally alienating everyone in her life. It's not hard to see why there's a lack of figures from her past in the film—including the 6-foot-5-inch elephant in the room, Novoselic, who declined to be interviewed.
In a conversation with Underdown, Novoselic's manager, John Silva, told the director that it "just wasn't a good chapter in Krist's life, and he doesn't want to talk about it. It was a major disappointment....I think he took a really big chance on Yva. Sometimes, you take a creative gamble that doesn't pay off."
Is her singing really that good? It's good, sure, but what drew Underdown to her was the hubris, the hysterical histrionics, the genuine lack of empathy and self-awareness: Is this what art is all about? Is this temperament necessary for the creation of art?
Underdown's response is, "You look at someone like van Gogh—someone who's clearly a genius, but clearly self-destructive and pretty much unable to function in everyday life. Even Kurt Cobain, he's talented, but he can't even function enough to stay alive. And you see this again and again and again. [Yva] was a pretty good representation of the inherently self-destructive type, who embodied this characteristic." And, let's not forget, still alive and available for filming.
Underdown still wishes that Novoselic had consented to an interview. "I have nothing but respect for Krist. We all make decisions in our lives that we regret sometimes. I would have liked to have asked, 'What were you thinking?'"