Dinosaur Jr have always been a mass of contradictions: a band who emerged from the ascetic hardcore punk scene and yet who, in J Mascis, boast a virtuoso shredder on guitar; a group whose primary vocalist has an almost pathological aversion to singing, or indeed even being the focus of attention; a trio who work in the entertainment industry but who confess “it never occurred to us that it was supposed to be fun”; three individuals who, on stage, have a close and symbiotic relationship and yet who, off it, can barely stand the sight of each other. New music documentary film Freakscene: The Story of Dinosaur Jr is the messy, noisy homage they deserve.
Directed by Philipp Reichenheim, aka Philipp Virus, the documentary transports us from Dinosaur Jr’s high-school origins as Deep Wound in Reagan-era Massachusetts; through being taken under Sonic Youth’s wing and the gradual acquisition of cult status in the late 1980s, the departures-under-a-cloud of first bassist Lou Barlow and then drummer Murph, the commercial peak of the grunge era, and Mascis’ decision to disband; and on to reformation, five further albums and the series of shows in New York in 2015 organised to mark three decades of on-off existence.
Famously, Mascis is to verbosity what Kanye is to modesty, preferring to let his wild soloing do the talking, and it turns out that not even Reichenheim, his brother-in-law, is capable of coaxing much out of him. When, at the very beginning, he admits his inability to remember the past, it doesn’t bode well for a film that sets out to recount the band’s history.
See What’s On at Chapter Arts Centre
Thankfully, though, Barlow and Murph are more forthcoming, and a strong supporting cast of alt-rock royalty (Henry Rollins, Bob Mould, Frank Black, Kevin Shields, Thurston Moore) is on hand to fill in the blanks. Music critic Byron Coley claims Dinosaur Jr are a pop band at heart, albeit one that have always had a habit of “demolishing it live,” while Kim Gordon describes the trio as a “psychotic family”.
Over time, that family fell out and fell apart, but subsequently reunited in 2005. Asked by a radio host how the coming together came about, Barlow ventures that it was simply due to the passage of time, anger and bitterness dissipating and individuals growing up – but their evident discomfort at being questioned on the subject, especially in each other’s company, hints at tensions that remain unspoken and unresolved.
Wisely (or understandably), the film doesn’t probe too deeply, instead suggesting that Mascis, Barlow and Murph have finally found a way to co-exist, discovering a kind of peace beyond dysfunction and a faith in themselves as a unit. Freakscene is a portrait of a singular band who have forged their own difficult path, melting a fair few amps and minds along the way.
Dir: Philipp Reichenheim (82 mins)
Freakscene is showing at Chapter Arts Centre, Cardiff on Thurs 25 Nov (8.40pm). Info: here
words BEN WOOLHEAD
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