Credit: Rapid Eye Movies
by Fred Barrett Featured Film Horizon Line

Freakscene: The Story of Dinosaur Jr. — Philipp Virus

May 26, 2022

Freakscene is worth a watch for completists, but anyone looking for a more comprehensive, well-structured deep-dive would do well to look elsewhere.

Legendary indie rock trio Dinosaur Jr. has enjoyed a cult following since the late ’80s, when their eccentric blend of frenzied feedback and melodic, song-focused sensibilities (not a prerequisite for bands of their scene) first made waves with weirdos, stoners, and hardcore-kids-turned-pedal-nerds in the American analog underground. As notorious for their dysfunction as they are for their wiry brand of eclectic, ear-bleeding, country-tinged punk rock psychedelia, the band’s original lineup imploded in 1989, when guitarist J Mascis and drummer Murph told bassist Lou Barlow they were disbanding, only to reform the next day — sans Lou. This new incarnation of Dinosaur Jr. reached its commercial peak during the alternative rock boom of the early ’90s before disbanding in 1997, when the rock-consuming public’s interest shifted toward post-grunge, nu metal, and pop punk. To everyone’s surprise, Dinosaur Jr.’s founding members reformed in 2005 amidst an onslaught of indie rock reunions. Unlike a lot of those reunions, however, Dinosaur’s actually stuck and — perhaps even more surprising — produced incredible results, both onstage and on the five albums they have released since.

Along with Green River, the Melvins, and the Pixies, they are widely regarded as pioneers of the massive cultural shift that Nirvana’s stratospheric success would eventually usher in, so a documentary chronicling the band’s tumultuous history seems like a perfect way to celebrate their lasting legacy — a legacy that has seen their fanbase grow to include college freshmen, born after the band first disbanded, as well as grey-haired old-timers in faded Dinosaur-tees, bought at a gig during the band’s days at SST. Unfortunately, Freakscene: The Story of Dinosaur Jr. doesn’t quite rise up to the challenge and is unlikely to garner the group a lot of new fans. As a matter of fact, Philipp Virus’ rock doc is kind of a sloppy, disjointed mess, oddly more in tune with the shambolic energy of the band’s pre-major label years than the well-oiled éminence grise of indie rock they are today. But while Dinosaur Jr.’s noisy ‘80s output always belied an immense songwriting talent and a propensity for hooks, little of substance manages to bubble to the surface of Freakscene‘s murky waters.

Dinosaur Jr. devotees will likely find few things here that they weren’t already familiar with (although finally seeing footage of their infamous ’89 onstage meltdown will be a nice surprise for most), and considering the band’s commercial peak was in the ‘90s, it continues to baffle how often that era and its members are treated as a footnote. The documentary spends a total of ten minutes on the band’s most successful decade before moving on to the next chapter, more or less ignoring the remarkable shift in exposure, sound, and appearance that occurred around the time of Green Mind and Where You Been. Unsurprisingly, neither Barlow-replacement Mike Johnson nor Murph-replacement George Berz were even interviewed. There’s also a lot of interesting and bizarre footage from that era that is completely absent from the film, including their absurd performance on The Jenny Jones Show, a television program so sleazy that it actually led to someone getting murdered.

Instead, the film opts for simple character study: from socially inept boys in their early twenties, obsessed with nasty fluids and viscera — an obsession reflected in song titles such as “Tarpit”, “Sludgefeast,” and “The Lung” — to socially inept but mellowed family men pushing 60 with some blistering albums, infighting, bad blood, and making up in between. Fair enough. But even though Virus spent years putting Freakscene together and enjoyed unique access (he is bandleader J Mascis’ brother-in-law), his work can’t help but feel a bit on the shallow and half-baked side, with even the legendary talking heads like superfan Henry Rollins, noise peer Kevin Shields, and especially the perceptive and articulate Kim Gordon feeling severely underutilized. And considering the film runs a relatively brief 80 minutes, the numerous musical interludes seem more like an attempt at reaching feature length than a conscious decision to let the music do the talking. Freakscene is worth a watch for completists, but anyone looking for a more comprehensive, well-structured deep-dive into the band’s history and the complicated personalities behind it might as well read Michael Azzerrad’s Our Band Could Be Your Life (which includes chapters on Sonic Youth, Big Black, The Replacements, and others) or the exhaustive, official Dinosaur Jr. book published by Rocket 88.