Equal parts concert documentary and break-up drama, “Leave the World Behind” tracks the blowout farewell tour of Swedish House Mafia, culminating in the group’s three members calling it quits at the height of their global popularity. Crestfallen fans looking for an explanation won’t find anything explicitly stated here, though director Christian Larson’s intimate access provides enough clues to help them read between the lines. Boasting plenty of euphoric performance footage to contrast with the enigmatic talking-head interviews, the flashy and well-paced pic will click with EDM (electronic dance music) aficionados and could reap minor commercial benefits from the genre’s recent higher profile.
Larson’s mission here is twofold: to illuminate what made Swedish House Mafia one of the most successful acts in their field, and what caused the three musicians to go their separate ways. The former proves to be far easier to accomplish than the latter, as the energy and enthusiasm radiating from the artists and the audience at every Swedish House Mafia show is impossible to miss. The combination of anthemic dance music, laser-enhanced pyrotechnics and supersized rave atmosphere unite for a powerful communal experience, and Larson drops viewers directly into the center of the infectious action with the aid of a supremely sharp tech package.
The overwhelming reaction is the same in every city they hit, from their native Stockholm to a surging fan base in Mumbai to the final performances at Miami’s Ultra Music Festival. Part of that was due to the mass appeal of the group’s final single, “Don’t You Worry Child,” which was blowing up into their biggest worldwide hit throughout the run of the tour (which started in late 2012 and ended in March 2013). In one thrilling sequence, Larson cuts from the song’s debut at the group’s final U.K. show in summer 2012 to just a few months later, during a sold out show in Australia, where 10,000 fans sing along in unison to the lyrics. Even before they cracked the code of crafting a perfect pop single, Swedish House Mafia had built a reputation as three DJs who always delivered a good time and had a blast doing it.
Two of the members — Steve Angello and Sebastian Ingrosso — had been friends for years, bonding as teenagers over Daft Punk’s 1997 landmark album “Homework” (their backstory briefly illustrated here by some charmingly lo-fi animation credited to Shynola). They later recruited Axel “Axwell” Hedfors and started playing gigs together as a lark that eventually became a career. Although they never released a proper album of original material, they dropped two compilation albums and six singles. It was enough to develop a rabid following, but not much to leave behind as a long-term legacy. As Hedfors frets at one point, there’s every likelihood that Swedish House Mafia will be considered nothing more than a “whatever happened to those guys?” pop-culture trivia question in a few years time.
Over the course of the film, it becomes clear that Hedfors isn’t quite comfortable with the group throwing in the towel (“It’s like we were given keys to a golden city and we’re throwing it away,” he tells Larson). Both Angello and Ingrosso admit to mixed feelings but appear more accepting of the decision. Angello especially seems to isolate himself from what is described as a once unbreakable three-way friendship, while Ingrosso makes veiled comments about putting his party-boy past behind him and focusing on clean living and being more stable for his family. But aside from a black-and-white flashback to the 2011 recording of “Don’t You Worry Child,” when the guys rent a house in Australia to focus on work and Angello disappears to get a tattoo, there are very few signs of obvious tension on display.
Instead, the film drops constant hints about a major falling-out and builds to a big reveal that never comes. There’s little doubt that Larson would’ve included specifics if he had uncovered them, but the three men who know exactly what went wrong simply don’t want to debate the details. At one point, Hedfords flat-out says, “We don’t discuss it, so we don’t argue.” That leaves the film feeling incomplete and unsatisfying, a cinematic echo of the way many fans view the group’s aborted career.
If the mainstream success of EDM ultimately proves to be a fad that fades away, “Leave the World Behind” could take on greater resonance as a micro-portrait mirroring that rise and fall. Time will tell if the entire genre, just like the the collaboration between Hedfords, Angello and Ingrosso, simply isn’t built to last. Or perhaps Hedfords’ fears will come true, and Swedish House Mafia is destined to go down as one small footnote in a larger musical revolution.