If you have nostalgia for the alternative rock scene of the 1990s, Underground Inc: The Rise & Fall of Alternative Rock is the film for you. It balances its broad topic with an in-depth examination of tons of bands and connects each band and artist experience to the last. This decision by director Shaun Katz made the documentary a more cohesive experience overall. Through this, it tells the story of these musicians and makes a larger statement regarding artistic integrity, alternative and punk culture, and the exploitative nature of the music industry.
Underground Inc: The Rise & Fall of Alternative Rock frames the rise and fall of the alternative rock scene as a consequence of a war between art and commerce. The overall structure moves from musician to musician with a universal emotional resonance that anyone can understand. Because the overwhelming majority of these artists came from lower-class families, there was a strong desire to make a stable living from their music.
After Nirvana became a national sensation, the record companies started to give sweetheart deals to anyone similar to the Kurt Cobain-fronted act, and many of these bands ate it up. But almost every story ended in tragedy, with the musicians deep in debt or the band so pressured to make music on a short schedule that they imploded. There was a collective regret over how things went and many different explanations why, but the record companies and their empty promises remain a constant throughout.
“…frames the rise and fall of the alternative rock scene as a consequence of a war between art and commerce.”
However, even at a mere 96-minutes, the movie still felt overly long. As Underground Inc: The Rise & Fall of Alternative Rock progressed, I kept feeling like it was about to end multiple times before it actually did. It could have also been more focused as several bands were introduced and then dropped in relatively short order, giving me too little time to connect with their story.
Additionally, I was disappointed by how little the film utilized the stylized grungy animations that spice up certain moments. They were used more in the latter half, but having them throughout would have given the movie a much more cohesive look. This is especially relevant given that the documentary would constantly cut from artists in their well-lit cushy homes and studios as 40 to 60-year-olds to them as 20 to 30-year-olds rocking out in dark and grimy nightclubs, creating an awkward tonal dissonance.
Underground Inc: The Rise & Fall of Alternative Rock attempted to squeeze a cohesive history of an entire era of rock music into a feature film, but in doing so, left several stories underbaked to fit soo many in. What was great to see was that out of the rubble of 1990s alternative rock, many of these artists went on to have moderately successful careers as musicians and producers, influencing the direction of rock music to this day. To be an alt-rock musician in the 90s was to be damned if you sold out and damned if you didn’t. That only strengthened the honesty and honest frustration in their lyrics and compositions.
"…stylized grungy animations...spice up certain moments."