Dinosaur Jr. are one of the most influential acts in alternative rock. A blend of hair metal excess and grunge’s anti-establishment snarl, the power trio of J Mascis, Lou Barlow and Murph opened the door for the likes of The Smashing Pumpkins, Nirvana and Soundgarden. The Cure liked their 1989 cover of ‘Just Like Heaven’ so much, they changed the way they played it live.
New documentary Freakscene: The Story of Dinosaur Jr. adds little to their underrated legacy though, instead focusing on the turbulent relationships between the three founding members. Directed by Philipp Reichenheim, it’s an 82-minute crash course in the sprawling history of Dinosaur Jr., as told by the band and their peers.
Rather than a story of how success first broke up the band, Freakscene introduces the three founders as an already fractured unit. Murph thought the other two members were uptight, they found him confusing and constantly changing his style. “I thought J hated me so I had no idea why he wanted me to join his band,” says Barlow early on.
“The purity of his vision,” is the only explanation given about why Barlow and Murph went along with Mascis who, despite producing the film, does nothing to sugar coat his image. From belligerent teen to grumpy old man, Dinosaur Jr.’s ringleader looks like he’s being forced to take part in this documentary against his will. He admits he doesn’t care for singing or writing lyrics despite being the frontman of the group. He never looks happy in the archive footage either, be it juggling oranges backstage or playing sold-out shows. “I don’t know where people got this idea that music was supposed to be fun. It never occurred to us that it was supposed to be fun. Music was really important,” he says at one point. Because of this, most of the actual storytelling comes from fellow musicians who were part of the Dinosaur Jr. story: Bob Mould, Kim Gordon (who calls them “the perfect band”), Thurston Moore, Kevin Shields, Kurt Ville, Henry Rollins and Frank Black.
Despite the dramatic, sometimes-violent history of the band – Barlow was fired in 1989, Murph quit in 1993 and Mascis retired the name at the height of their success in 1997 before all three reunited in 2005 – Freakscene never feels like a soap opera. Likewise, the connection to Nirvana is never given more than a cursory glance. More sensitive than sensational, it’s a grounded glimpse behind the scenes of one of the more mysterious legends in alt-rock.
Trying to cram four decades into just under 90 minutes means that some stuff is skimmed over. Frustratingly Freakscene doesn’t spend much time talking about the breakup or the reunion, instead focusing more on their 2015 residency at New York’s Bowery Ballroom as a way to show how far they’ve have come.
By the end, the film reaches a kind of reluctant pride, Rollins explaining: “I don’t know if they’ll be best buddies for life but when they hit the stage, they have a great thing. I think they’ve found a respect for that now.” Even Mascis gets a little sentimental. “(Our music) has affected somebody, which I’m happy about.” For diehard fans, Freakscene is a new look at a much-loved story and for newcomers, it’s the perfect introduction to the foundations of an iconic band.
- Director: Philipp Reichenheim
- Featuring: J Mascis, Lou Barlow, Kim Gordon and more
- Release date: October 1