Underground Inc: The Rise and Fall of Alternative Rock

(Shaun Katz, Australia, 2019)


It is far from a criticism for me to declare that, of the many bands and artists featured in this documentary, I had heard of very few of them beforehand. That’s not merely a reflection of my personal musical culture (and its deficiency!); it actually goes to the very heart of what this lively film is all about.


“Alternative rock” of the early 1990s: it has been packaged, anthologised, mythologised, told and retold, sold and re-sold, many times over in the past three decades. Yet every mass-marketplace success story has its casualties; in this case, those musical acts who didn’t get to ride the wave of Nirvana, Pearl Jam or Nine Inch Nails – even if they were an integral, even influential part of the scene of alternative rock; even if they got some way inside the machine of managed record-making, touring, promotion and manufactured “public image”.


How can an underground – wild, radical, free, spontaneously combusting – be incorporated? That’s the impossible paradox this film probes. Incorporation entails corporations, and the entire business process that absorbs the creativity of musicians and turns that expression into a product. As it happens, not very many survive the brutal churning of that almighty, industrial wheel. In the system one year, spat out the next.


The film organises itself as a chronicle of the ‘90s: as the years tick by, things, for the most part, get worse for the denizens of the underground. The real deal-breaker that eventually shakes up that status quo is the widespread arrival of the Internet (and everything it allows in the way of self-management) at the end of the decade. That’s when a new chapter – and a different topic for another documentary – begins.


It is an intriguing counter-trend in pop culture, this move to understand and appreciate, to tell the hitherto untold story of, the “also-rans” of the arts (especially – for some reason – music). I don’t mean they are secondary in quality; rather, for whatever combination of factors, they didn’t happen to “cross over” to chart success or any other kind of major recognition. This counter-trend runs the gamut from the “almost Bob Dylan” of Joel & Ethan Coen’s Inside Llewyn Davis (2013, one of their better films), inspired by the autobiography of folk legend Dave Van Ronk (1936-2002); to Ethan Hawke’s grittier, underrated Blaze (2018), a jagged biopic devoted to country singer-songwriter Blaze Foley (1949-1989). More broadly fictional efforts, often whimsically comic in nature, also treat the theme: the Australian Garage Days (2002), John Schultz’s appealing Bandwagon (1996), even (at the slick end) Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous (2000). Paul Schrader’s undersung Light of Day (1987) turns this inherently melancholic topic (“we could have made it to the big time …”) toward family melodrama.


Underground Inc covers an extraordinary amount of ground in a swift 96 minutes. I kept a list as I watched it, jotting down all the bands I needed to discover: I got to about 35 (which is not the total number showcased in the film), including Fishbone, Sugar Tooth, Cop Shoot Cop, Quicksand, Rocket From the Crypt, Bad Religion, Danzig, Clutch, Agnostic Front … and to those who are already familiar with these names, and are fans of what they represent, I say: rally round this movie!


Naturally, not all of these bands, if they began way back, are still together and functioning today. Katz avoids both maudlin nostalgia and facile judgement in the matter-of-fact way he shows these musicians as they are today: variously noodling around on their instruments at home; bittersweetly recalling the good/bad ol’ days; or discreetly dwelling in a more middlebrow (and thus financially more confortable) music-making milieu.


The underground focused on here is primarily American (the “Seattle Sound”, the Chicago scene, etc.), but there is a salutary reference to the “global network” created by this underground that was, in whole or in part, anti-pop, Metal inflected, and neo-punk rock. Particular themes emerge across the numerous personal testimonies. In particular, the devious ways of the money system in the music industry, whereby an act effectively “goes into debt” by making a record for a label, and then has to work that off with incessant touring … not to mention the hurdles (again, economically slanted) put in the way of making a second record, especially if the first one (quote unquote) “under-performed”. As someone wisely notes: “You’re payin’ for it all” – no free lunches here. It’s all too easy to abruptly end up as somebody else’s “tax write-off”.


There is also engaging discussion of the role of music video (and of MTV); the difficulty of grabbing radio airplay; the (often deleterious) role of drugs, interpersonal clashes, departing band members and inflated egos (“being lost, high, angry”); the nitty-gritty of getting and using and keeping the necessary music equipment; and the overarching question of maintaining artistic control – of sound, of image, of schedule, of a chosen lifestyle and its political values. There’s a strong line near the end of the documentary: “Everybody has a hand in their destiny”. How much of a hand is precisely the question.


There are many brief performance or video clips included, but Underground Inc does not linger long on any one piece of music, however “classic” they may be to those in the know. Its filmic form is comprised of two main materials: the interviews, captured in a very direct, candid, natural way (don’t skip out before the wonderful cap-off story in the end credits); and the in-between, transitional material that carries the burden of the backgrounding, narrational duty (since there is no boring voice-over here!). On this level, I was reminded of a less hectic but equally intimate (and even more political) documentary portrait of a music scene and its history: Bill Mousoulis’ Songs of Revolution (2017, plus its remix, Songs of the Underground), devoted to “radical Greek music”. An intriguing phenomenon: Australian filmmakers immersing themselves in (largely) non-Australian subjects and traditions (see also, for coverage of another art form, Selina Miles’ Martha: A Picture Story [2019]).


Due homage must be paid to Katz’s central collaborator on Underground Inc, Jb Sapienza, who is editor, co-producer and animator – in tandem with the relentless pace of the editing, the animation is especially impressive in the way it compresses and conveys a great deal of information. The busy sound editing and design, by Alex Newport and Mark Bradridge, is another standout feature.


Underground Inc is a film that has been around for a while now, but has received relatively little attention. It deserves a lot more.

© Adrian Martin April 2022

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
home    reviews    essays    search