A teenager, his jeans hanging on to his hips for dear life, makes his way to an under-construction stage. This platform is being readied for the Ultra Music Festival in Florida, a three-day electronic dance music bonanza, and the young man is 18-year-old Martin Garrix who, fresh off his 2013 chart-topping hit Animals, is all set to headline the popular event. He is, we are told, the new face of electronic dance music.
In many ways, Garrix’s musical persona ticks all the identifiers of contemporary dance music culture – he’s a youngster making music with generous bass drops and taking over some of the grandest stages in the world, as a dizzying number of heads bop to his loud, homogenised sound sets. After all, EDM, as electronic dance music and its accompanying culture is called, is supposed to be one grand party. But there are many who consider the genre to be just computerised sounds without live instruments. To them, filmmakers Bert Marcus and Cyrus Saidi serve a condensed timeline of the rich history of dance music with their 2017 documentary What We Started, which was released on Netflix on July 1.
“We just wanted to tell the story of a genre with a rich history that no one knows of,” Marcus said in an interview.“ Most people believe EDM just burst off the ether, but a lot of people don’t know its origin story. So we wanted to encapsulate the 30-year history in an interesting fashion, in a non-linear narrative for a broader audience, fans and otherwise.”
Marcus, who has also made the Mike Tyson documentary Champs (2014) and The American Meme (2018), partnered with Saidi, an active member of Canada’s rave community, to trace the history of a genre that has dominated popular music in the last decade, making its way to the albums of everyone from Beyonce to Lady Gaga.
It’s a huge ambition, and the documentary retraces the sounds that led to the dance music movement, zeroing in on New York Disco, Chicago House, and Detroit Techno. It brings out industry veterans such as Tiësto, David Guetta, Steve Angello to chart the history of EDM, but begins to achieve a narrative focus when it draws out parallels between its protagonists, Martin Garrix and Carl Cox.
What We Started chooses the legendary techno producer and the young star to serve as bookends of a dance music timeline. Two years after Garrix performed his first headlining set at Ultra Music Festival in 2014, Cox was nearing the end of his 15-year residency at the famous Space club in Ibiza. The same year, Garrix was named the Number 1 DJ by DJ Mag.
Garrix’s rise and Cox’s final year at Ibiza become the focal point of the documentary. Cox and Garrix are very different artists, with dissimilar sounds and craft levels, but What We Started coaxes out a dialogue between them, for a baton-passing consistency.
“We wanted to present the timeline by juxtaposing the history with the contemporary culture,” Marcus said. “When we met Martin Garrix, he was just a kid living at home with his parents in Amsterdam. He was yet to release Animals and become the number one DJ in the world. But at the time, he was just a bedroom DJ, downloading a lot of music and software. And we found in him a great example of the young generation and how they adapt the sound of the genre.”
On the other end, they had Cox, “who still plays vinyls, who plays unstoppable ten hour-long DJ sets, does not play pre-recorded sets, and is a true industry legend”, said Marcus. “They became the unexpected duo to tell this story.”
Marcus is also quick to present several similarities between the two electronic producers. “They both have a true passion and love for their music, for creating something that people can feel,” he explained. “They both come at their work from the same place. They became really strong vehicles for this story because this is all they know. This is all they would do, even if they weren’t paid to do it. I have never seen people with such drive. Even though they’re completely different, and got into the industry in completely different ways, and in different times, what they have in common is that this music is their true love.”
The 90-minute documentary tries to tackle not only the history of electronic dance music, but also its highlights. But because of its length, it shimmers over these subtopics. For instance, while the documentary does credit the underground, largely black and LGBT counter-culture for supporting and building the dance music industry, it does not look at how the commercialised and straight-white-male-dominated version today betrays those very ideals. Even drug use, which remains a notorious strand of dance music culture, is not closely explored.
The documentary also touches upon a long-standing argument in electronic dance music – one that draws clear battle lines between DJs who mix live with vinyls like Cox and Jeff Mills, and those who bring in pre-recorded sets on their USB drives and simply press play, like Steve Aoki, Deadmau5, and Garrix. This is an argument that posits craft against the rampant consumerism of dance music today that does not recognise raw talent. But the film avoids taking a stance on this debate, and simply presents naysayers on both sides.
“There’s only so much you can do in 90 minutes,” Marcus explained. “It’s definitely highlighted in the film, when we look at the days of disco in New York, and House in Chicago. We show how the advent of technology commercialised it, and made it very accessible. We have people calling out the trend; [American DJ] Seth Troxler especially is very vocal about it.”
In the documentary, Toxler makes his views clear on the debate over commercialised music debate. “Underground music is about art, whereas EDM is about show business,” he says.
Marcus said the intent was to tell people how the genre has changed. “The idea wasn’t to trash the EDM side of the world, and show the good old day of electronic music, but to show the evolution of the music,” he said. “Where it came from, where it is today, and where it’s headed. It’s up for the audience to make their own decisions.”
The idea is also not to talk down to viewers but to inform the average viewer about EDM, Marcus said. “Perhaps you’ve heard about this music, and don’t know much about it,” he explained. “You’ve heard about the mainstream acts today, like Martin, but never heard of Carl who helped build it. The one thing we’ve tried to do is bring the whole community together, the underground artists as well as the commercial ones. If 90 minutes in, you’re immersed in this culture, then it’s a great break from life.”