Watching a music documentary is normally a very black or white experience. I normally find that either the documentary has been designed to do nothing else but promote or praise an artist or it is there to bring an artist undone like the infamous Kurt & Courtney. Rarely, do you ever get to see a balanced documentary that is willing to show the good and bad of its subject.
Going into Underground Inc: The Rise & Fall of Alternative Music I was expecting one of those black or white doccos. This was either going to be a film that concentrated on the positives of alternative music or it was going to focus on the unfounded negatives – alternative music leads to depression and suicide yada yada.
To my surprise though Shaun Katz’s film actually ends up being a concise and informative film that explores the world of the underground music scene during the 1990s… a time when the underground scene very much took over the charts and verged on becoming the mainstream.
As some of Katz’s subjects talk about back in the early 90s we saw one of the biggest changes the music scene had ever seen. One week Whitney Houston was the top of the charts and literally a week later Nirvana had taken that spot… and music as we knew it had changed forever.
With Underground Inc. Katz doesn’t swim in the shallow end of the pool. This isn’t a fan-made documentary where he wastes screen time chatting to groupies or ‘that guy that was once in the front row at a Nirvana show.’ Katz goes in deep and chats to the likes of Sean Yseult from White Zombie, Steve Albini who was the producer for both Nirvana and The Pixies and then chases down bands like Helmet, Cop Shoot Cop and Corrosion Of Conformity to get a really inside look at what the underground music scene was like at that time.
If you want a warts and all documentary about alternative music, then this is it. The film explores the highs – bands signing million dollar deals because suddenly alternative music was popular but he also explores the lows – bands who were snapped up in the alternative frenzy only to be left high and dry by record labels who had no idea how to market them. The result for many was devastating, band in-fighting through to some artists finding themselves more than $200,000 in debt to the label they signed with.
If Katz’s aim was to show the world that for every Nirvana and Smashing Pumpkins there was an equally as good band who were over-looked but kept slaving away then it certainly achieved that. As far as the filmmaking style of the film goes it works brilliantly. There is no boring voice-over or lame re-enactments. Instead Katz lets the film flow by chatting to people who were there and not only witnessed the events they are talking about but also lived through them.
Underground Inc: The Rise & Fall Of Alternative Music is a must see for anyone who lived and loved music through the 1990s. This is one of the greatest snapshots of the era that I have ever seen and while it does glorify the music it also shows the dark side of the music industry and how signing to a major label is not always the blessing that artists expect it to be. This is one of the most important music documentaries of modern times.