I remember being fifteen years-old and limping into the movie theater in a walking boot because I was recovering from a badly fractured ankle. At this point, getting to walk was exciting because I had been on crutches for weeks. I entered a matinee showing of Forrest Gump to meet my friend but I arrived a few minutes late and the theater was packed. Back then, we didn’t have cell phones so I didn’t get a text message of where he was seated. So, I sat in the first seat I could find, and spent the next two and half hours on a wonderful journey with Forrest Gump. To this day, it remains one of my favorite movies. People can pick it apart all they like, but I find it to be a fantastic film in every way.
Pardon the title but there is a debate out there that 1994 was single best year in the history of film. Now, much of this appears to be based on those who love to watch movies, not necessarily movie buffs or critics. Do I think it was the best year ever? I don’t know. The truth is, it is a claim that I will need to revisit at another time, in another blog. What I can point to is that the top five films of ’94, in order of worldwide box office revenue, is impressive. The list is as follows: The Lion King, Forrest Gump, True Lies, The Mask, and Speed. All of these are great films and some would argue that The Lion King is the best animated Disney film of all time.
Another reason 1994 stands out in film is due to one of the most popular independent films of all time: Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction. The movie made a killing and resurrected John Travolta’s career while helping to turn Samuel L. Jackson, Uma Thurman, and Ving Rhames into stars for the next few years (of course Jackson is still a star while the other two are not quite as big anymore). Just as impressive was the fan base that followed Tarantino from Pulp Fiction until today. His movies remain very popular and while Reservoir Dogs was his first major feature, Pulp Fiction is the film that turned Tarantino into a household name.
One of the more impressive achievements of ’94 was from Jim Carrey. He had not one, not two, but three films make more than a hundred million worldwide in the year: The Mask, Dumb and Dumber, and Ace Ventura: Pet Detective. I have to do research on this but I don’t know if anyone has ever done that before or since as the leading man in three movies in one year.
On an unsurprising note, both Tom Cruise and Harrison Ford continued their strength at the box office in ’94. Cruise played a vampire along with Brad Pitt in Interview with a Vampire while Ford played a CIA agent in Clear and Present Danger. Both films went on to make more than $200 million worldwide. Demi Moore also showed her popularity once again with Disclosure, alongside Michael Douglas. The movie also made more than $200 million worldwide, making it three straight years that a Demi Moore movie made at least that much.
Another great film, The Shawshank Redemption, was a ’94 release as well. Some think it’s the best Stephen King film adaptation although it is not a horror film. Frank Darabont, who directed the film, almost stepped aside to let Rob Reiner direct. Reiner, if you remember, directed two King adaptations in Stand by Me and Misery. Had he taken the reins, he was considering Tom Cruise as the lead character of Andy and Harrison Ford as Red. Andy and Red would go on to be played by Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman.
Music also had a standout year in ’94 with a number of new artists arriving on the scene that would become popular for years to come. Two of hip hop’s greatest rappers ever, Nas and Biggie Smalls, as well as the group Outkast, had their debut albums that year. Other notable debut albums that year: Beck, Dave Matthews Band (debut studio album), Weezer, Oasis, Korn, Aaliyah, Portishead, and Brandy.
Interestingly, two debut albums in ’94 produced two of the biggest hits as All-4-One and Toni Braxton each put out a top 10 single. Braxton’s “Breathe Again” need up as the seventh biggest single of the year. All-4-One performed even better with their single, “I Swear” finishing at number two. What many people don’t realize is that the song was actually a cover of a song originally recorded by country music artist Michael Montgomery. That song reached number 42 on the Billboard Hot 100 in ’94.
The most impressive debut album of ’94, if sales are taken into consideration, was Ace of Base’s Happy Nation. The album put three singles in the the top ten of Billboard’s Hot 100: “All That She Wants,” “Don’t Turn Around,” and “The Sign.” Happy Nation has sold over 23 million units worldwide, making it one of the biggest debut albums ever.
Popular groups continued to put out music that the masses enjoyed. Nirvana blew audiences away with their MTV Unplugged in New York album, which also wound up being the first album they released after the death of Kurt Cobain.
One of the biggest albums of the year belonged to the biggest movie: The Lion King. Its soundtrack would include Elton John’s two hit singles, “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” and “Circle of Life” as well as the extremely popular, “Hakuna Matata” sung by characters Pumbaa, Timon, and Simba. All three songs were nominated for Best Song at the 67th Academy Awards with “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” taking home the award.
In addition, already established pop music stars maintained their hold on the industry’s charts. Mariah Carey and Boyz II Men both scored top 10 singles in ’94 with “Hero” and “I’ll Make Love to You.” Celine Dion’s “Power of Love” while Sting, Bryan Adams, and Rob Stewart collaborated for one of ’94’s biggest hits, “All For One.” ’94 also would not have been the same without Lisa Loeb’s big hit single, “Stay,” from the Reality Bites soundtrack. It finished at number six for the year.
American television sees the beginning of one of its most-watched news events when OJ Simpson, accused of murdering Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman, is seen fleeing police in a white Bronco driven by his friend, Al Cowlings. The live news coverage would be covered by all major news stations, including NBC, which cut away from game 5 of the NBA Finals to show the low-speed chase. I’ll forget watching that game and suddenly having it change to a freeway in Los Angeles. It was a good series so having it interrupted by a low-speed freeway chase, and a boring one to boot, was infuriating. Still, according to the NY Times, more than 95 million people watched the chase.
Sitcoms ruled the roost in ’94 with four of the top five highest-rated shows for the year going to Home Improvement, Seinfeld, Roseanne and Grace Under Fire. In fact, seven of top 10 highest-rated shows of the year were sitcoms with Coach, Frasier, and Murphy Brown being the others. On the contrary, not one TV drama made it into the top ten.
A few notable networks debuted in ’94, including FX, the first cable network to be owned by Fox. The Independent Film Channel (IFC) would also launch, originally as a commercial-free movie channel. Other networks to debut that year would be the Home and Garden Television and the Game Show Network. In addition, the satellite broadcast juggernaut, Directv, debuted in ’94 as well.
One of the most popular TV dramas of the 90s would debut in ’94 with ER grabbing audiences from the get-go. In addition to this, one of the 90s’ biggest sitcoms, Friends, debuted as well. Both would draw high ratings for many years throughout the decade. Other popular shows that debuted in ’94 were Ellen, Party of Five, Babylon 5, Sister,Sister, Chicago Hope, New York Undercover, and My So Called Life.
It’s always hard to say goodbye to your favorite shows and just like every year, fans had to bid a farewell to those that ended in ’94. On a personal level, I hated to see In Living Color get canceled but the final two seasons paled in comparison to the first three. It was bound to happen after Jim Carrey and Damon Wayans left the show. Other shows that would say goodbye were Star Trek: The Next Generation, L.A. Law, The Arsenio Hall Show, and Garfield and Friends.
If we’re reviewing 1994 in American pop culture, it would be wrong not to point out Woodstock ’94. It was the 25th anniversary of the original concert held in Woodstock, New York in 1969. The ’94 concert was so big that concert organizers lost control of it. 350,000 people attended but due to the low security numbers, people were able to enter the concert with all kinds of illegal things (mainly drugs, of course). Regardless, it was a huge hit and the lineup was outstanding. Among the performers were Metallica, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Aerosmith, and Nine Inch Nails.
In conclusion, 1994 is notorious in the music world for the death of Kurt Cobain. Being in high school at the time, I remember how his death impacted the youth of the country. There were kids crying at school the next day. At the time, I was not a fan of grunge music because teenage me was in an arrogant phase of believing that only hip hop existed and that was all I would listen to. Point being, his death was a huge kick to the gut for music, especially grunge. Nirvana was easily one of the most popular groups when he died. Sadly, everyone knew Nirvana was over with the death of Cobain. Nobody will ever know just how successful they would have been had he not killed himself.
*The sad scene of Cobain’s death
While there were a ton of great moments in American pop culture in ’94, it will always be known as a “movie year” for me. Despite that, it’s hard to overlook all the debut albums and great TV shows that started that year. On a sad note, one of music’s biggest stars took his own life. In the following year, the midwest would be hit by a bombing that would rock the entire country.