CUFF Review: 'Freakscene' Isn't Fun, Because Dinosaur Jr. Aren't Either

Directed by Philipp Reichenheim

Starring J Mascis, Lou Barlow, Murph, Henry Rollins, Kim Gordon, Kevin Shields, Frank Black

Photo courtesy of CUFF

BY Alex HudsonPublished Apr 27, 2022

Playing in a popular indie rock band seems like it would be fun, right? Think again. Dinosaur Jr. are not enjoying themselves, and they're perfectly willing to say so. "I don't know where people get this idea it's supposed to be fun, or something, to play music. It never occurred to us that it's supposed to be fun," J Mascis croaks during one particularly ponderous scene in Freakscene: The Story of Dinosaur Jr.

Dinosaur Jr. influenced a generation of alternative bands with their noisy jams and melodic talents, and Freakscene offers a very comprehensive overview of their career. The archival work is very thorough, with director Philipp Reichenheim digging up a huge amount of early performance clips and old interviews. Freakscene has a rough-and-ready punk aesthetic, with the grab-bag of clips resulting in wild changes in resolution and aspect ratio. 

It's interesting to see how Mascis's obsession with the drums resulted in him being a reluctant guitar player, and how his famed fretboard virtuosity came from a desire to overcome his boredom with the instrument. Many notable admirers appear to discuss their love of the band, including Henry Rollins, Sonic Youth's Kim Gordon and My Bloody Valentine's Kevin Shields. Frank Black of the Pixies also appears, although maybe he should have sat this one out, because his description of the band's music (which he compares to a wobbly-armed monster) is wildly ineloquent.

It's a thorough history lesson that goes through the band's discography album by album and touches on their awkward brush with mainstream acceptance, breakup and eventual reunion — but the constant focus on Dinosaur Jr.'s music comes at the expense of illuminating the men behind the music. J Mascis's devotion to a Hindu guru and his sweet relationship with his family are alluded to but never properly explored; same with drummer Murph's experiences with grief and addiction. Bassist Lou Barlow's work in Sebadoh is only mentioned in passing, as are his children and marriages.

Even the band's famous infighting is a bit mild, with the members discussing their conflicts in their usual sleepy cadences. A clip of Mascis and Barlow getting into a full-blown fight on stage is a rare moment of excitement.

Countless bands cite Dinosaur Jr. as an influence — but Freakscene plays out more like a cautionary tale than an inspirational story.

Calgary Underground Film Festival runs online and in theatres from April 21 to May 1. Full details are available at the festival's website.

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