'What We Started': Film Review

Fans-only doc offers some historical context for young EDM enthusiasts.
3/23/2018

Bert Marcus and Cyrus Saidi chart the rise of electronic dance music.

Who is the "we" in Bert Marcus and Cyrus Saidi's What We Started? This look at electronic dance music speaks of the genre's origins — in Manhattan disco, Detroit techno, etc. — in the third person, and incompletely; the interviewees we do hear from are mostly those who rode predecessors' coattails to fame and fortune. Nevertheless, the throbbing documentary tells enough of the story to show today's legion of David Guetta fans where he and his peers came from. Viewers who suspect this scene's superstars will be in 20 (or 10) years will likely remain unconvinced when the credits roll.

Opening scenes suggest the worrisome prospect that Started will focus exclusively (or mostly) on two dissimilar DJs: Carl Cox, the British house DJ who enjoyed a 15-year residency at Space Ibiza; and Martin Garrix, the Dutch wunderkind who headlined the main stage at Miami's Ultra Music Fest when he was still a teenager. Both prove to be fine company, but neither seems doc-worthy. Fortunately, they're not the only beat-droppers we'll meet here.

As the film approaches the 10-minute mark, it takes a break for a short look back at the roots of DJ-centric dance events. John Lyons (identified only as a "nightclub pioneer") recalls a time when bars thought they needed live music to attract dancing patrons. Who would pay to spend time in a club with just a guy spinning records? ("But what if the guy stuck his hands in the air a lot while he was playing?!," one imagines Skrillex suggesting.)

Obviously, people came out. We've barely heard the name Larry Levan, though, before the film has moved on from disco, name-checking Chicago's house music and Detroit's techno. You'll be forgiven if you get through these quick scenes and still have no idea what the difference was between these two spinoff genres; the film is mainly interested in following their influence to England and Ibiza.

Bizarrely, it basically ignores hip-hop's contribution to the art of the DJ — an art that would likely still be in the stick-figure phase without rap culture's influence. And it is not interested in the 1980s synthpop that had a similarly profound effect on the dance-remix auteurs soon to become stars. Instead of musicology, Marcus and Saidi focus their attention on the social environments in which DJs came to be the focus of attention: They spend lots of time with the men who found ways to turn the English rave culture of the late '80s into a very lucrative nightclub community.

Somewhere in here, what had been a subculture became the stuff of Spring Break and outdoor music festivals. Perhaps because it wants to play to both sides, the film's viewpoint is awfully muddied when it addresses conflict between traditional DJs — who know how to handle turntables, read a crowd's mood and do their thing for many hours at a time — and those who premix a whole set to a USB stick, hit play and just bounce up and down onstage. Does the latter group (which represents the genre's most successful entertainers) deserve our disdain, or have they developed some new art the old-timers just don't get? The doc's verdict seems to be that whatever draws the biggest crowd wins.

Production company: Bert Marcus Productions
Distributor: Abramorama
Directors-screenwriters: Bert Marcus, Cyrus Saidi
Producers: Cassandra Hamar, Bert Marcus
Executive producer: Pete Tong
Director of photography: Will Dearborn
Editors: Allan Duso, Greg Finton
Composers: Nima Fakhrara, Stuart Roslyn

96 minutes

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