Text © Robert
Barry Francos / FFanzeen, 2022
Images from the Internet
The Story of Dinosaur Jr.
Directed by Philipp Virus (aka Philipp Rockenheim)
Rapid Eye Movies; Virus Films; Utopia
82 minutes, 2021 / 2022
An infamous story about the Western Massachusetts-based trio that formed in the early 1980s, is that the band was originally named Dinosaur and had their first album titled as such on the highly influential SST Records label. A classic rock cover band, also called Dinosaur, who never went anywhere, got lawyers involved, and the threesome had to change their name to the new moniker. Dinosaur Jr.
Wikipedia lists Dinosaur Jr. (DJ) as “alternative rock.” While most people would simply put them into the “hardcore” label, it could be that AR is a bit more accurate than hardcore. DJ were different than most of their label mates at the time, such as Black Flag and the Minutemen in that they were often a mix of melodic verses and much more explosive and experimental sounds, especially during the bridges of songs. I would go so far as to say guitarist J. Mascis is as innovative as, say, Johnny Thunders in that the sound is almost undefinable and, for most, unrepeatable.
That is not to say, however, there were not some equally brilliant guitarists that broke the boundaries, such as Greg Ginn (in his post-Black Flag days, such as with his band Gone, for example), Sonic Youth, and Bob Mould (Hüsker Dü), but we are here to discuss power noise trio Dinosaur Jr., consisting of J. Mascis (vox/guitar/songwriter), Lou Barlow (bass), and Murph (aka Patrick Murphy), drums.
Even before I start the documentary, one of the points I am really interested in is that Mascis is known to be quite contentious. I’m not sure if it’s punk anger, ego aggrandizement, or that he’s just an asshole, but (a) there is no argument that he is influential, and (b) I am hoping to find out a bit more about the band beyond the vinyl (yes, I have all of DJ’s early albums in first-pressings LP form).
We are musically introduced to the band right off the bat, with a for-the-documentary music video of one of their early tunes, with a mixture of photos and videos, both archival and present day. When we actually meet the trio in the modern day during their interview stints, the mixture of old and new continues, which makes it truly interesting, especially their early days as a hardcore band called Deep Wound, when they were still in high school. Even at this beginning you can see the rumbling of Mascis’ need for control of every aspect of the band, more than even Johnny Ramone. The amps had to be right, the guitar sound, the songs themselves, etc. It’s hard to please a perfectionist.
One of the highlights – if not the highlight – is the live footage of the band onstage during their early years. Watching Mascis just shred is a sight to see. It is like he is taking all his emotions, frustrations, and anger out in his thrashing.
The band was a bit contentious, and soon found themselves blacklisted from venues in Western Mass. Funny, because these places obviously had no idea about New York bands like Suicide and Red Transistor, who physically assaulted the audience. But they did get on the EVOL release tour opening for Sonic Youth. Both Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore are interviewed (not together; to find out why, read Kim’s book, Girl in a Band), and home movies of the two bands intermingling is fun.
Also interviewed in the doc are some of the band’s friends and relations, Henry Rollins (is there any documentary about the 1980s that he is not in?), Bob Mould, and Frank Black/Black Francis (the Pixies), along with members of other groups.
The second most famous thing about DJ (in my opinion), is the conflicts within the band. Even early on, Mascis and Barlow were going head-to-head. Still, though early on Mascis refers to the band as “family” here, he kicks out Barlow in 1988, and he did not rejoin the band until 2005, but it did give Barlow a chance to form other bands like Sebadoh, and a lengthy solo career. As the rhythm section, Barlow and Murph seemed to get along, and then the relationship with Murph and Mascis proceeded poorly after that. Murph exclaims here, “this band was never fun. It was never about fun. It was always blood, sweat, and fucking tears.” To which he followed by leaving the band to keep his own sanity.
To most people, J. Mascis = Dinosaur Jr., and he even did an DJ album practically by himself. For touring, he picked a revolving door of musicians during the height of their fame in the 1990s, when they signed with Sire Records, and after Nirvana broke everything wide open.
There is a couple of interesting clips of Mascis playing with the Ashton Brothers and Mike Watt, performing Stooges songs. Now, from what I understand, Ron Ashton is similar to Mascis when it comes to attitude and demeaner, and one has to wonder how fire and fire combined. Also, these clips were ones I would have really liked to see completely, as every piece of music is abbreviated for time.
I find it interesting that none of the other members of DJ while Barlow and Murph were gone are interviewed. By the time the original members reformed in 2005, Mascis’ hair is white and Murph is cue-ball bald.
One thing that drove me a bit crazy was that for a man who likes to play as loud as possible, it’s ironic that Mascis’ voice is so rumblingly deep and quiet, it’s was hard for me to hear him onscreen sometimes, and I had to back-up to catch it. Mind you, my ears are affected by live music in clubs since 1975, so it may not all be Mascis’ fault.
Most band documentaries tend to focus on a specific time period, such as the formation, or their rise to fame, but this one is broken up basically into three sections. The first, which is the formation and beginning of their recordings up until Barlow and Murph are gone, the second is the middle period with others filling their spots, and the third is the reformation in 2005 and going forward to the present. Wisely, the focus is on the first and the last, with the Barlow-less and Murph-less DJ given short time. I love how much they spend on the third act, the relative now, showing them backstage, on stage (including their 30-anniversary show in New York City at the Bowery Ballroom in 2015), and more interviews (Murph comes out the most sympathetic). There is not a weak moment in the film, and it is just the right length.
While there are a large number of great both archival and newer footage, interviews and still photos for all the parts, it’s the interviews I found most interesting, getting to know their personalities (well, the public ones anyway), and how they managed to reunite and get along (unlike most of the Ramones who hated each other).
Mascis put it well towards the end of the film: “We’re more like family than friends. A dysfunctional family.”
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