Sundance Film Review: ‘Under the Electric Sky’

Under the Electric Sky EDC 2013

Those who suspect that EDM is possibly the most vapid form of 'alternative' music will have their suspicions confirmed by this 3D documentary.

More high-grade souvenir for the previously converted than a very persuasive recruitment tool for those not already in love with EDM (electronic dance music), “Under the Electric Sky” records last year’s Electric Daisy Carnival in Las Vegas, currently the largest annual music fest in the U.S. Non-fans may find this 3D documentary only confirms their suspicion that EDM is possibly the most vapid form of “alternative” music, and its ecstatic fans constitute one of the most vacuous fanbases, ever. Limited theatrical exposure is likely, though the film’s principal audience will access it through home formats.

Directors Dan Cutforth and Jane Lipsitz make a seemingly solid decision not to simply focus on the performers (who, twiddling dials and pointing emphatically skyward, aren’t much to watch) and the more colorful crowd, but on a disparate number of hand-picked attendees. Sadie and Jose are here because the music seems to melt away their limitations from anxiety disorder and scoliosis, respectively. Young professionals in love Jim and Jenna are seeing each other for the first time in six months, since their dream jobs keep them on separate continents. Five jock dudes have traveled from Cape Cod to commemorate a fellow “Wolf Pack” member who recently died from a drug O.D. A half-dozen Southern Californians in a live-in polyamorous relationship seem to live the EDC lifestyle 365 days a year.

Despite their superficial diversity, however, all these people look around 20-25, the exception being 35-ish Vegas couple Alli and Matt, who met at the festival 15 years ago and now have two kids. And no one here really has anything remotely interesting to say (not even the institution’s founder/CEO, Pasquale Rotella, whom we follow around a bit), unless you count umpteen variations on “This is so crazy great oh my god I love the energy everybody is so free ‘n’ stuff … EDC! EDC!” Add to that the one-finger-at-the-Casio-keyboard compositional nature of nearly all the music heard — occasional, more song-structured anthems like Avicii’s “Wake Me Up” aside — and the jubilant onscreen spirit may translate best for those who can experience it as a personal Ecstasy flashback. (Commissioned by EDC producer Insomniac, the pic downplays the role of drugs at what’s officially a zero-tolerance three-day party, but … please.)

The festival is festooned with wandering acrobats, clowns, et al., as well as plenty of pop sculptures, pyrotechnics, amusement-park-like attractions, and seven stages (though we only ever seem to see one of them, with a giant owl backdrop). Star DJs are name-checked and briefly interviewed, but EDM is a genre whose synaptic potency builds over the course of a set. Hearing just brief extracts from sets as they approach climax just underlines how simple, repetitious and samey the form overwhelmingly is.

Despite the whimsy of much raver finery and the love/peace/acceptance vibe, there’s also a sameness to the revelers. If EDC draws any gays, African-Americans or body types not ideal for wearing glorified bikinis or board shorts, you wouldn’t know it from the evidence here. The effect is as much like a giant spring-break bacchanal as it is like a commercialized Burning Man or supersized old-school underground rave.

Ergo, the pic provides lots of sexy, neon-hued eye-candy but not many images of deeper resonance. Bookended by flat sequences (before and after the festival), the 3D format surprisingly isn’t exploited all that effectively in Reed Smoot’s otherwise accomplished lensing. Other tech/design contributions are top-shelf, and of course the sound mix is aces. Still, if ever a movie begged for revival of butt-rumbling 1970s theater gimmick Sensurround, it’s “Under the Electric Sky,” with its incessant audio orgasms of thumping bass.

Sundance Film Review: 'Under the Electric Sky'

Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (Park City at Midnight), Jan. 19, 2014. Running time:

Production

(Documentary) An Insomniac presentation in association with Haven Entertainment. Produced by Rachel Miller, Kevin Mann. Executive producers, Pasquale Rotella, Michael Rapino, John Hopmans, Simon Rust Lamb, Dan Cutforth, Jane Lipsitz, Randy Sosin, Christopher Boyd.

Crew

Directed by Dan Cutforth, Jane Lipsitz. Camera (color, widescreen, HD), Reed Smoot; editors, Kevin Klauber, Steve Lichtenstein, Dava Whisenant; music, Kaskade; music supervisor, Jason Bentley; supervising sound mixer, Fernando Delgado; supervising sound editors/re-recording mixers, Craig Mann, Ben Wilkins; assistant director, Kevin Flecher; casting, Doron Ofir.

With

Alli, Amy, Arielle, Bobby, Dione, Desirae, Drew, Jake, Janna, Jim, Jay, John, Jose, Kelly, Luan, Matt, Michael, Nick, Robert, Ryan, Sadie, Pasquale Rotella, Above & Beyond, Afrojack, Avicii, Dash Berlin, Gareth Emery, Dillon Francis, Cedric Gervais, Hardwell, Calvin Harris, Jamie Jones, Alex Kidd, Rebecca & Fiona, Fatboy Slim, Tiesto, Armin Van Buuren.

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  1. a3gill says:

    Smells like confirmation bias. I hope it felt good.

  2. GarryG says:

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  3. Brian D says:

    Haven’t seen the movie, but I felt the overall tone of the review was condescending towards the music and community. It is quite obvious that the author is not a fan of the rave/festival scene. More likely, he probably hates EDM.

    “Add to that the one-finger-at-the-Casio-keyboard compositional nature of nearly all the music heard — occasional, more song-structured anthems like Avicii’s “Wake Me Up” aside”

    People who do not understand (or hates) a certain type of music, oversimplify things in this fashion. A heavy metal fan might say about a classical piece – “That’s just another old dude playing the piano.” The author gives an exception to Avicii’s country inspired track because…let’s take a wild guess…he probably likes country! How did I know?! What is this sorcery??

    Variety – You guys really should have sent someone who likes or at least tolerates electronic music to review this. I came to read a constructive review about a film I had interest in. Instead, I got to read a guys rant about what real music and real people should be.

    Author – Try navigating digital audio workstations like Ableton Live. Or maybe watch a youtube video on subtractive synthesis. You may not describe it as “one-finger-at-the-Casio-keyboard” after that.

  4. Straw Man Counterpoint says:

    Mr. Harvey,

    Your short-sighted labels of “vacuous” and “vapid” are not only offensive to fans of EDM, but they are the epitome of lazy criticism. You judged an entire culture off of a documentary about a single event. Your criticisms do not focus on the film, but instead, attack the fanbase as if they are nothing but drug-riddled, Stepfordian, human pogo sticks. The film presents multiple cases where this is not true. I urge you to study more of the history and the work behind the music before you jump to intellectual conclusions about an entire culture. Here is an article I suggest: http://bit.ly/LWOTox

    • Jane says:

      This isnt a review of EDM its a review of one film. If you have to study the history of EDM to get this film then non-fans aren’t really going to get it. So then it really is a souvenir for fans, not a film for the general public.

      Why so defensive? The years of “that’s not music” are over. Rave is pop. Its mainstream. Do you think the movie succeeds as movie in its own right? Do you think it respected EDM by being truthful? Are you glad it only shows a narrow view of EDM? Why does the 2010 film of EDC not show one scene, one mention of the riots? Not any of the MC repeatedly calming the crowds as people were injured? This movie is another version of that kind of denial. No one who watches film of Woodstock thinks that showing the harder parts of that event slams the entire culture of the day. It brings us closer to knowing what is was like to be there. People will look back at this film and never really see how rich a culture surrounds EDM. Its a shame.

      • Jane says:

        Strawman – to reply to your reply. Fair points. I think we agree mostly. However, he doesn’t come out & call the genre “vapid” – he points out that the genres detractors non-fans won’t be proven wrong. I guess thats almost the same thing the long way around, but its not wrong. The film makers didnt do anyone favors except for maybe EDC’s lawyers & the new owners at Live Nation’s edict to sell higher priced tickets.

      • Straw Man Counterpoint says:

        Jane, I wasn’t criticizing his analysis of the film, I was taken aback that he used his platform of film review to negatively brand an entire genre of music and its fans. It was narrow-minded. I think you would agree that this film does not show every aspect of electronic music, yet, Mr. Harvey thinks it’s appropriate to label the fans of this music as unintelligent based on the viewing of a single documentary about a single event. He then minimizes the work put into the structural level of the music and then hypocritically says the creators didn’t respect the structure of how the music is meant to be heard. He bounces from a criticism of the event to a criticism of the music with no regard for differentiation. You’re right in saying the movie whitewashed a lot of negative aspects of EDC: no mention of legal troubles, no mention of winds in 2012, no mention of riots in 2010, no mention of cost, minimal mention of drug use. But as you mentioned Woodstock, it would be disingenuous to see that film and then write an article that criticizes rock music’s emphasis of the beat on the second beat and not the first and use that as a means to call the genre “vapid.”

  5. bunnyz says:

    The author of this piece is actually on point. (Jane, too.) I’ve loved the rave scene since the 90s (and still go to these events) and was so excited to see a rave film at Sundance. But this was a huge disappointment. This was essentially just a 90-min fluff commercial. And none of the characters were taking drugs or came across drugs in their 3-day adventure?? Get real, EDC! These corporate raves are in denial. No wonder kids die at these events, because the truth is simply shoved under the neon carpet…so that they can make more $$. Time to take this culture back underground!

  6. Jane says:

    I get this writers point that fans will love this because they love the culture. I can see how this doc is just be one big fluff piece instead of getting into depth. I loved EDC once upon a time. They are so careful about white washing everything that they miss the heart & soul of documentary film making. Its not the writers fault that he thinks outsiders won’t see EDC as a rich culture – its the film makers fault. Documentary films often pull me into cultures I wouldn’t normally identify with. If they didn’t, they didn’t. EDM people are so defensive and so is Pasquale in controlling every image we see of EDC – its part of the reason this film fails to be more than a souvenir of good times.

  7. Tom says:

    Wow this was completely off putting and insulting to read. Why would you have someone who clearly has no knowledge of music review this movie? The unnecessary insults prove that this journalist clearly missed the message and the point of the entire festival. It is sad that he will probably never understand it.

  8. J V says:

    Good going geniuses at Variety letting a film critic write an article about a documentary on music. Should’ve had someone without such a narrow scope write it or someone who knows something/anything about music. Don’t know what he thinks about pop or hip hop but in my opinion, these two genres are far more vapid and vacuous. References of peace, love, unity, and respect are messages found in most electro tracks. I wouldn’t expect a writer for the “entertainment machine” to understand, possibly to busy chasing Kesha, Miley, or Beiber to get it.

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