For DJs, short attention spans can often be assets. Part of the job, after all, is always having a new track cued up before the audience has a chance to start getting bored with the current one. But what works in a nightclub set doesn’t always work in a film, as electronic dance music documentary “What We Started” demonstrates. Featuring appropriately fizzy visuals, a wealth of music and archival footage, and a deep crate of interview subjects, Bert Marcus and Cyrus Saidi’s film is more interested in flow than focus – though it offers a decent enough primer on dance music history, it’s so eager to play all the hits that it never quite settles into any particular groove.
Although “What We Started” is largely concerned with presenting an abridged overview of dance music’s evolution, it does locate an interesting hook by profiling two DJs as they approach two very different milestones. In one thread, the film follows then-teenager Martin Garrix – the babyfaced Dutch DJ who vaulted into almost overnight success with his single “Animals” – as he nervously prepares for a headlining performance at Miami’s massive Ultra Music Festival. The other spends time with Carl Cox, one of dance culture’s cuddliest and most respected elder statesmen, as he nears the end of his 15-year residency at the famed Ibiza nightclub, Space.
Using the pair as stand-ins for the music’s past and future is a solid idea, and both prove to be engaging subjects, though it’s hard not to wish for more from Cox, who obviously has a deeper well of stories to tell. (Bringing the two together at the end doesn’t result in many sparks, save for the moment when Garrix hears Cox reminisce about playing 10-hour sets and asks, wide-eyed, “without repeating any songs?”)
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In between, the filmmakers survey a wide range of talking heads – from big-name spinners (Paul Oakenfold, Tiesto, David Guetta, Afrojack) to more esoteric minds (Sasha, Seth Troxler, Richie Hawtin) and longtime promoters (Pasquale Rotella, James Barton, James “Disco Donnie” Estopinal) – for a guided tour through the evolution of dance music. From the rise and fall of disco to the past decade’s EDM goldrush, the film largely gives us a winner’s history, with as much time devoted to Oakenfold’s stadium tour with U2 and Tiesto’s appearance at the Athens Olympics as the entire genres of house and techno combined.
The film’s overall tone is unabashedly celebratory, and while it doesn’t shy away from dance’s thornier corners – the role of drugs, the side effects of commercialization, the increasing reliance on pre-programmed sets instead of live DJ mixing — it spends too little time on any of them to offer much insight. In fact, it’s the pithier responses that stick in the memory, from inexplicable interviewee Ed Sheeran’s take on USB DJing (“I don’t get it; it’s a laptop and a dude, that’s it?”) to Oakenfold’s hearty laughter when an interviewer suggests that ecstasy wasn’t actually an important part of the UK’s rave culture.
Perhaps more importantly, though, the film rarely manages to dig below the surface to the art vs. commerce dilemmas that seem to lie at the heart of some of the genre’s biggest flashpoints. How did a radical form of music born in the black gay underground become the default soundtrack for spring break resorts and bottle-service Vegas clubs? What are the risks involved when such a rich, complex culture is stripped down to its loudest elements for pop crossovers? Is there not a middle ground between the sometimes dangerous DIY raves of yore and the megabudget, Disneyland-like spectacle of the modern festival circuit?
For DJ booth lifers, these questions are more than just academic. At least in the United States, dance music seems to evolve in repeating cycles of boom and bust, and the eagerness with which commercial interests seek to strip-mine it only adds ammunition to the inevitable backlash. Even Garrix, idealistic newcomer that he is, worries that his own seemingly effortless rise to superstardom only leaves him vulnerable to an equally precipitous fall. “What We Started” offers an entertaining survey of how far the music has come, but it would take a more critical approach to figure out where it’s going.