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Saturday, 14 July 2018

What We Started

(M) ★★★★

Director: Bert Marcus & Cyrus Saidi.

Cast: Carl Cox, Martin Garrix, David Guetta, Paul Oakenfold, Pete Tong, Moby.

"And then I said 'I need a bigger table'."
The documentary What We Started aims to be "the defining film of the electronic music genre" and, for now, it is. It's the radio edit of a genre, distilling the important elements down to a catchy three-and-a-half minutes, as opposed to being the sprawling 12 minute club remix it could have been.

So while it's frustrating the way this doco skims through lots of integral things, you know there's the electronic dance music (EDM) equivalent of Ken Burns' 10-part series Jazz out there, floating in the ether, just waiting to happen. This ain't it, but in the meantime it will do.

What We Started is both a potted history of EDM and a tribute to two of its shining lights - veteran party DJ Carl Cox and young uber-producer Martin Garrix. While we watch dance music emerge from the ashes of disco in the late '70s before spreading and mutating around the world, we also see Cox end his 15-year residency at Ibiza's much-lauded nightclub Space and follow Garrix's meteoric rise to the top of festival line-ups.

The twin tales of Cox and Garrix get to the heart of the movie's message. While the film's talking heads often sound overblown discussing what EDM means to a bunch of people who are clearly just pinging off their heads, there's no disputing the way this type of music manages to affect a British black kid who grew up in the '70s (Cox) and a white Dutch kid who grew up in the '00s (Garrix). Cox's tale even adds a bit of heart to proceedings - it's hard not to get caught up in his passion as he says goodbye to Space, while his sister talks about Cox's relationship with his father.

The history lesson of it all is equally fascinating, if disappointingly scant. We whirl through the likes of Larry Levan, the rise and fall of disco, Chicago house, Detroit techno, acid house, the superclubs (Hacienda, Ministry of Sound, God's Kitchen), and the genre's recent rebirth. It's all told through the talking heads of Cox, executive producer Pete Tong, Paul Oakenfold, Afrojack, David Guetta, Tiesto, Moby, Sasha and more, plus some shitty quality but essential archival footage.

When it deep dives into things like Paul Oakenfold opening for U2 or the 2000 arrest of club owner Donnie Disco, it's awesome. It's even better when the genre starts to eat itself and the old-school DJs/producers start railing against the new school, only to recant later, or when they start taking swipes at "press play" DJs like Deadmau5 and Steve Aoki. It's a shame the doco doesn't better illustrate what the modern non-USB DJs are doing on the stage beyond scratching some vinyl and messing with the EQ. Demystifying the art might have helped take this to the next level.

Also missing are some pretty big names - there's no Giorgio Moroder, Chemical Brothers or Fatboy Slim, while Moby's presence is only to talk and never be part of the story. Daft Punk are in there for literally five seconds, while the doco inadvertently indicates that electronic music didn't exist prior to the mid-'70s. It also takes 48 minutes for drugs to get mentioned, although when the drugs kick in, it helps keep things interesting.

There are some unnecessary title cards and some bad punctuation - "DJ's" is a regular mistake - but some cool visuals and good material keep this from getting overblown. What's great is that it works as an entry level look at a music genre that snuck out of the underground clubs to become a billion-dollar industry.

If you don't "get" EDM, this is probably the best attempt out there to help you understand or appreciate what it's all about. For everyone else, bring on the 10-part series.

What We Started is currently screening on Netflix.

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