*A demolished Iraqi tank sits at the forefront as oil wells burn in the background (The Atlantic)
I’ll never forget being eleven years old on vacation to Philadelphia to visit my aunt and watching the beginning of the Gulf War on television. It was the summer of 1990 and Iraq had invaded Kuwait. By 1991, America was deeply involved, bombing Iraq over and over until a cease fire was announced in February by President George Bush. While the war didn’t last that long, it lingered in the media for the rest of the year. Also of importance, this blog could not have possibly been written had it not been for 1991 as it was the year the World Wide Web debuted.
That year, I had a lot of movies and music to fill my time as I was too young to care about political issues and I wouldn’t know what the World Wide Web was for at least another few years. Besides, young me had bigger fish to fry like watching Michael Jordan versus Magic Johnson in the NBA Finals and all the big movies coming out in the summer.
One of those films was Terminator 2: Judgement Day, the biggest movie of the year with almost $520 million worldwide. It was huge; Arnold Schwarzenegger and James Cameron at their finest. The special effects were incredible and it had one of the coolest and most frightening villain in action movie history: The T-1000, played perfectly by Robert Patrick. It also had Linda Connor as a Sarah Connor, who does a 180 degree turn from her timid Sarah Connor in Terminator to ultimate bad ass Sarah Connor in the sequel. To this day, it remains on my list of one of the greatest action films of all time.
Regarding box office hits of 1991, it was one of the best years of the 90s in terms of the overall quality of the top movies. Aside from Terminator 2, there was Beauty and the Best, still regarded as one of Disney’s greatest animated features. It was so good, in fact, that it’s one of the few animated films to ever be nominated for a Best Picture Academy Award. I would argue that eight of the top 10 box office movies of 1991 are great films.
*The Beast and Belle dance in the lavish ballroom (Beauty and the Beast, 1991)
The only two films I would not label great, in terms of their lasting power, would be Hook and Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. It’s not that I didn’t enjoy them, I did quite much, but I do not think they’re on the level of the other eight films cinematically. Here’s the other eight in order of their box office numbers: Terminator 2, Beauty and the Beast, The Silence of the Lambs, JFK, The Addams Family, Cape Fear, Hot Shots!, and City Slickers.
*Silence of the Lambs remains one of the best suspense films of all time
The Addams Family, Hot Shots!, and City Slickers were all great comedies. JFK was, despite it’s nearly 3 1/2 hour running time, a phenomenal historical thriller. Not only was Silence of the Lambs the Best Picture winner for 1991, it’s a classic suspense movie that also earned Best Director for Jonathan Demme, Best Actor for Anthony Hopkins, and Best Actress for Jodie Foster. Martin Scorsese’s Cape Fear was a fantastic remake of the original movie and starred Robert De Niro as one of the creepier villains I’ve ever seen.
In an interesting change, three films with predominantly black casts, were huge hits: Boyz N the Hood, New Jack City, and Jungle Fever. They were also all directed by black directors. The success of New Jack City and Jungle Fever turned actor Wesley Snipes into a big name in next few years while Boyz N the Hood put Cuba Gooding Jr. on the map and turned director John Singleton into the youngest person ever to be nominated for Best Director at the time.
*Cuba Gooding Jr. and Ice Cube in Boyz N the Hood (The Film Experience)
1990 was also a huge year for music as three of the top 30 best-selling albums of all time were released in 1991: Michael Jackson’s Dangerous, Metallica’s Metallica, and Nirvana’s Nevermind. That is only the tip of the iceberg as there were several other big albums released in 1991 including R.E.M.’s Out of Time, Natalie Cole’s Unforgettable…with Love, Paula Abdul’s Spellbound, Garth Brooks’ Ropin’ the Wind, U2’s Achtung Baby, Pearl Jam’s Ten and Guns N Roses’ Use Your Illusion I and II.
It was also the year that N.W.A. released their final album, Niggaz4Life, and the first in which Ice Cube was no longer a member of the group. Speaking of Ice Cube, his second album, Death Certificate dropped in late October of 1991 and less than two months later it had already gone platinum.
Of note here is “Black Korea,” a single off of Death Certificate that is an angry response to the way African Americans are treated by the Korean liquor store owners in their community. However, this was also a response to the killing of Latasha Harlins in 1990, a fifteen year-old girl who was shot in the back of the head by a Korean store clerk who thought she was stealing a bottle of orange juice. The lady wound up getting $500 fine and four years of probation but not a day of jail time. Some claim it was this instance that was a prelude to the Rodney King Riots. More on that later.
There were a large number of huge singles in 1991 as well. For starters, “(Everything I Do) I Do It For You”, Bryan Adams’ mega-hit from Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, is one of the decades biggest hits. It remains the 13th biggest single of all time. Nirvana’s “Teen Spirit” is not only a huge hit, it is the song that marked the start of grunge rock’s ascension into mainstream popularity.
If you listen to any Top 40 radio stations, you’ll notice many songs that came from 1991. Still getting heavy play these days is Extreme’s “More Than Words,” Paula Abdul’s “Rush Rush,” Color Me Badd’s “I Wanna Sex You Up,” C+C Music Factory’s “Gonna Make You Sweat (Everybody Dance Now),” and R.E.M.’s “Losing My Religion.”
*One of the more memorable images from the “Losing My Religion” music video.
American audiences also got their first taste of Boys II Men with their debut hit, “Motownphilly.” They would go on to become one of the most successful groups of the 90s. Although she was already making hits in Canada, Celine Dion’s big breakthrough came in 1991 with her duet song, “Beauty and the Beast” with Peabo Bryson. Lenny Kravitz not only produced Madonna’s “Justify My Love,” he also released his biggest single ever, “It Ain’t Over ’til It’s Over.” Seal also arrived on the American music scene with his debut single, “Crazy.”
*Philadelphia’s finest, Boyz II Men
In the world of television, there were a few firsts in 1991 that still remain strong today. It was the year that The Comedy Network becomes Comedy Central. Court TV goes on air for the first time and would later become what is now called TruTV. The premium cable channel Encore, now known as Starz, debuted in 1991 as well.
*Some of Comedy Central’s logos in the early years
1991 also saw the start of many hit television shows including Nickelodeon’s first three animated original series: Doug, Rugrats, and The Ren and Stimpy Show. Other popular shows that debuted in 1991 were Blossom, Shop ’til You Drop, Roc, The Maury Povich Show, The Jenny Jones Show, The Montel Williams Show, The Jerry Springer Show, and The Commish.
*The Ren and Stimpy show took disgusting humor to a bizarre and absurd dimension
The biggest show to debut in 1991 was Home Improvement in terms of its popularity throughout the decade. Not only was it one of my the most popular television series of the 90s, it turned Tim Allen into a huge star and was the first series in which Pamela Anderson was a regular (she was part of the cast for the first two seasons).
There were a few notable debuts by future stars in 1991. Jennifer Lopez made her debut as a Fly Girl on In Living Color while Jamie Foxx joins the cast. Adam Sandler joins the cast of Saturday Night Live one year after joining the writing staff. One of the biggest music stars of the 90s, Brittney Spears, appears as a contestant on Star Search.
*Before …Baby, One More Time, Britney Spears performed on Star Search
1991 also signaled the end of hit TV show, Dallas. The finale remains one of the most watched television finales of all time. Other shows that ended in 1991 were Hunter, 21 Jump Street, Twin Peaks, Head of the Class, The Hogan Family, Amen, The Real Ghostbusters and game show The Joker’s Wild.
*Although it had a short run, Twin Peaks had a cult following that remains to this day
As someone who lived during this time, if you want to know what the most watched single thing was in 1991 it would have to be the beating of Rodney King. The brutal police beating of King was recorded on a home video camera on March 3 and would be repeated thousands of times across news networks throughout the year. After what happened to Latasha Harlins, the Rodney King beating created even more tension in the predominantly African American community of South Central Los Angeles. A little more than a year later, those tensions would explode into one of the biggest incidents in America in 1992.