As I watched Freakscene: The Story of Dinosaur Jr. with my 62-year-old father, who has never heard nor heard of the titular band in question, it became evident that age, in particular the process of aging, would play a serious factor in our viewing experience.
Throughout the film’s breezy 82 minute runtime, Pops kept mentioning, aloud and incredulously, how young the band—vocalist/shredder extraordinaire J Mascis, bassist/vocalist Lou Barlow, and drummer Murph—looked in early photos and footage, and how old they appeared now. Their youth had come and gone, their skin had sagged, their hair and beards had either grayed or, much like their youth, thinned away to baldness.
A seminal alternative rock act who influenced a whole genre of poppy, noisy slackers, Dinosaur Jr. would not have fit into my dad’s blues rock and new wave sensibilities. He liked the Talking Heads and Blondie, but mostly because he thought they were from England. He would have been 25 and youthful when Dinosaur Jr.’s debut album came out.
But watching Freakscene with him, a distinct feeling of unremembered nostalgia emerged. It wasn’t for the band itself, nor for the scene they helped define, but simply for youth and the wondrous racket produced by the young, artistic, and hungry.
And that’s what the film itself so richly and obsessively presents: a band preoccupied with music, with the idea of music. With sound and noise and the beauty of Marshall stacks, pounding drums, and distortion pedals. (So. Many. Pedals.)
It’s OK to Feel the Pain
Named after the opening track from the band’s 1988 album Bug, Freakscene traces Dinosaur Jr.’s origins from scrappy punks playing in Deep Wound (Mascis and Barlow’s early ’80s hardcore band), through their triumphant and star-studded 30th anniversary shows, to the grizzled present. All of their albums and band-iterations are peppered throughout.
What you should know is that there is nothing salacious or controversial about Dinosaur Jr., and that’s exactly what sets Freakscene apart from most rockumentaries. Besides its brevity (and hallelujah for that–someone finally gets it), the inevitable drama, pain, and breakups that come with being in a band take a much appreciated backseat to, you know, the music. There is very little talk of drugs, and even less of sex.
Instead, director Philipp Reichenheim (aka. Philipp Virus) steers the band towards candid, contemplative, sometimes acerbic recollections. They talk about why being in a band shouldn’t be easy, what being a band meant and still means to them, and most tellingly, how their relationships as bandmates and acquaintances—they don’t really seem to be friends—have evolved as they’ve grown older. From fist-fighting on stage and splintering, to touring the world and releasing more albums as the original trio after reforming in the mid-2000s, age has certainly been kind to Dinosaur Jr.
The film also features testimonials from indie and alternative rock luminaries, including Kim Gordon, Thurston Moore, Black Francis, Bob Mould, Kevin Shields, and of course, Henry Rollins. (Is it even a movie about alternative rock if he isn’t in it?) Nirvana is briefly discussed (Kurt Cobain loved the band so much he once asked Mascis to join Nirvana as a second guitarist), but all of these guest stars are contextual, and serve to illuminate the film’s central thesis: Dinosaur Jr. is very influential. Even if you don’t listen to them, one of your favourite bands probably does (or did…a lot).
Dinosaur Jr.’s music is loud and abrasive, beautiful and serene, damaged and vulnerable, sometimes all at once and simultaneously, and Freakscene feels much the same. Fans of the band will find a lot to like here, but casual observers may be put off by the lack of drama, the idiosyncrasy of its subjects, and Mascis’s East Coast drawl. It’s a crawl-drawl. He speaks very slowly. Just watch the trailer, but if you know, you know.
A Band for All Seasons
In his book Our Band Could Be Your Life, Michael Azerrad sums up the appeal of Dinosaur Jr. much more succinctly than me or my father (who now loves them!) ever could:
[Dinosaur Jr.’s] music continued a retrograde stylistic shift in the American underground that the Replacements and other bands had begun: renouncing the antihistorical tendencies of hardcore and fully embracing the music that everyone had grown up on.
And yet, the film makes it clear that the band has returned, metaphorically, to this hardcore ideology: Mascis, Barlow, and Murph don’t dwell on the past. It is too raw, too fragile, and there are too many painful associations with going back there. Although the film harkens back to a pre-internet, pre-cellphone, pre-responsibilities time—an analog time—that many of Dinosaur’s more agéd fans will undoubtedly associate with the band, this is certainly not a trio who relies on reminiscence. In fact, they actively reject it: they released a new album last year, and it rips.
Much like the band itself, Freakscene is not nostalgic for any particular time or noun. And yet, you’ll probably experience this contradictory feeling much like my father did. Seeing those images and hearing those sounds brought him back to the cacophony of his youth. It reminded him of an older era that the members of Dinosaur Jr. themselves relived so wildly during their initial run.
Dinosaur Jr.’s music is my father. It’s him, in 1975, skipping school to smoke cigarettes while waiting in line for Deep Purple tickets. Their music doesn’t just evoke that feeling, it is that feeling.
I’m sure we’ll all get there one day.
Freakscene: The Story of Dinosaur Jr. is playing at the Calgary Underground Film Festival on April 24th. Absolutely catch it if you can.