Sundance Film Review: ‘Give Me Future’

Major Lazer’s Cuba concert provides few musical thrills but a brief look at the country’s DIY youth culture in Austin Peters’ sketchy doc.

Give Me Future
Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival

The music of tomorrow is electronic, according to “Give Me Future,” a documentary about the March 2016 concert put on in Havana — following President Obama’s efforts to normalize relations between the U.S. and Cuba — by dance-hall mega-band Major Lazer, comprised of superstars Diplo, Jillionaire and Walshy Fire. Alas, there’s far more talk about the forward-thinking quality of Major Lazer’s output than there is actual evidence, as director Austin Peters’ documentary is a cursory affair that skimps on depth in favor of uplifting soundbites and chopped-up snippets of performance footage.  Most interesting when it ditches its subjects to focus on Cuba’s DIY information culture, the film, premiering at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, is likely best suited to play to its niche audience on VOD.

Influenced by, and combining elements of, various Caribbean styles, Major Lazer is an eclectic group interested — per its members’ repeated statements — in pioneering a multi-ethnic sound for today’s global youth. The band’s international popularity, and Cuban audience of nearly 500,000 people, speak to the success of that endeavor. From the outset, however, “Give Me Future” tells far more than it shows, spending little time playing, or detailing, the group’s actual music, or the process used to create it. Nonetheless, Major Lazer’s bring-people-together ethos, and island roots, make Cuba a natural fit for a show, set to take place in the same square where, for decades, Castro’s government held anti-American rallies.

The disintegration of borders is central to Major Lazer’s artistic mission, and “Give Me Future” is best when contextualizing the group’s arrival vis-à-vis Cuba’s half-century of estrangement from the rest of the world. In fact, director Peters’ film is most engaging when it altogether sets aside Diplo and company and focuses instead on Dany Garcia, a 27-year-old techno-entrepreneur who uses hotel internet connections to pirate movies, music, and TV from around the globe, and then employs a 1 terabyte hard drive to store, and disseminate, that material to the rest of his countrymen. That weekly service (known as “Paquete Semanal”) functions offline, through hand-to-hand (and MP3 player-to-MP3 player) content-sharing, and speaks to not only the country’s cultural isolation — further epitomized by its old cars and crumbling infrastructure — but to its resourceful DIY spirit.

It also conveys the irrepressibility of creativity even under repressive regimes. Yet that energy, which can be felt in fleeting snapshots of a few popular Cuban acts asked to open for Major Lazer, is too frequently absent in “Give Me Future,” which even at a scant 85 minutes pads its running time with scenes of press conferences and pre-show production preparations. Whenever Peters shifts his attention back to Diplo or his two band mates, the film bogs down in maxims about inspiring kids to chase their dreams and push traditional boundaries, with only the bare minimum of background material provided about how Diplo himself rose to stardom. Moreover, the roles of Jillionaire and Walshy Fire in Major Lazer are never even properly delineated; in one concert clip after another, they come across as guys whose sole purpose on stage is to hold a microphone and jump around to prerecorded tracks.

No doubt both artists have more to do in Major Lazer than that. “Give Me Future,” though, is more concerned with romanticizing Cuba’s youth-culture awakening — mainly by showing teenage attendees jumping up and down, and waving to the cameras, in euphoric slow-motion — than with conveying precisely why the group is so popular, or meaningful, to kids who, until shortly before this event, likely hadn’t ever been exposed to their work. Somewhere buried beneath Peters’ new-day-rising clichés and superficial celebration of electronica stars, there’s an intriguing documentary about Cuba’s transformation struggling to break free.

Sundance Film Review: ‘Give Me Future’

Reviewed at CAA, New York, Jan. 17, 2017. (In Sundance Film Festival — Documentary Premiere.) Running time: <strong>85 MIN.</strong> (Original Title: "Give Me Future: Major Lazer in Cuba")

  • Production: (Documentary — U.S.-Cuba) A Matador Content and TMWRK presentation in association with Underground Films, Creators League Studio and MTV Documentary Films. (International sales: Submarine, New York.) Producers: Jack Turner, Wesley Pentz, Jay Peterson. Executive producers, Kevin Kusatsu, Todd Lubin, Andrew Mcinnes, Noah Rothman, Kristin Patrick, Ellen Healy Pietropaoli, Garrett English, Daniel Montalto. Co-executive producers, Leah Culton Gonzalez, Trevor Engelson.
  • Crew: Director: Austin Peters. Camera (color, widescreen, HD): Deering Regan. Editors: Sheila Shirazi, Ezra Paek.
  • With: Diplo, Jillionaire, Walshy Fire. (English, Spanish dialogue)