NJ Film Fest Review: ’90s alt-rock documentary ‘Underground Inc.’

underground inc. review

Dave Wyndorf of Monster Magnet, shown in the video for the band’s song “Space Lord,” is interviewed in the movie “Underground Inc.”

The fall edition of the New Jersey Film Festival, which takes place annually at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, will be online-only this year, Sept. 13-25. For a complete list of offerings, visit njfilmfest.com. Here is a review of the opening film, which will be available online starting at 12:01 a.m. Sept. 13 via eventive.org.

The documentary “Underground Inc.: The Rise and Fall of Alternative Rock” is more about the fall than the rise. Yes, there are mentions of Nirvana, Smashing Pumpkins, Soundgarden and other bands that achieved great commercial success in the ’90s. But the movie is more about the alternative-rock bands that got lost in the shuffle during that decade: Cop Shoot Cop, Sugartooth, Handsome, Failure, The Jesus Lizard, Clutch, Dig and so on. Bands that signed lucrative record deals in what John Leamy of Surgery describes as “the great post-Nirvana feeding frenzy of noisy bands” but never sold a huge number of records and weren’t able to sustain a long-term, high-profile career. It’s both a celebration of these bands, and a lament for them.

“The harshest thing about that time was how many records were made, and just squashed,” says Shawn Smith, of Brad and Satchel.

By “squashed,” he means neglected by their own record companies. The same dynamic applies to countless bands in this film. Record companies, encouraged by the money that Nirvana and others are generating, signed countless alternative bands, hoping to strike gold again. But they didn’t really understand the bands and their music, so they couldn’t promote them in the right way. In some cases, they put them on tours with bands they didn’t have anything in common with.

A lot of these bands made adventurous music that was never, realistically, going to connect with a mass audience. And when the sales figures were disappointing, the record companies lost interest. Sometimes, almost immediately.

One of the most unique tales comes from New Jersey’s own Monster Magnet, who, disappointed by the shallowness of the music business, decided to satirically embody that shallowness on their 1998 Powertrip album, and had a minor commercial breakthrough.

There are a lot of bands in this movie. I’ve named some of them, but that’s just a fraction. So you don’t really get an in-depth look at any of them.

But the Australian filmmaker Shaun Katz, who directed the film, and Jb Sapienza, who co-wrote and co-executive-produced it with him, are obviously more interested in presenting an overview of American alternative-rock in the ’90s — or, more precisely, a look at the factors that momentarily buoyed many bands, then cruelly pulled the rug out from under them — and they do that very well.

This is really a must-see movie for anyone seeking to understand what the ’90s alt-rock scene was all about.

Here is a trailer:

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