Film Review: Above & Beyond Acoustic: Giving Up the Day Job

Ultra-polished concert documentary delivers ample performance footage amid blatant hero worship.
Specialty Releases

Fans of the EDM-gone-acoustic DJ supergroup Above & Beyond should feel extremely well-served by the concert documentary Above & Beyond Acoustic: Giving Up the Day Job. Co-directors Paul Dugdale and Myles Desenberg provide copious amounts of elegantly shot, expertly recorded concert footage, garnished with many, many shots of enchanted fans, their arms outstretched in something like exultation.

But who are these artists bringing grown men and women to tears with their uplifting, elegiac melodies? Unfortunately for those yet unconverted to the group’s spiritual frequency and cult following, the film makes little effort to distinguish the individual identities or personalities of the bandmates. The movie assumes the viewer’s familiarity with these stars of the EDM circuit, and rarely pursues any insight beyond press-ready sound bites about creativity and some of the songs’ origins.

We do learn that DJ/producers Jono Grant, Tony McGuinness and Paavo Siljamäki have spent nearly 20 years, and achieved extraordinary success, creating “loud and powerful and energetic” dance music that happens to feature emotional, rhapsodic breaks and bridges. Inspired by their fans’ passionate response to those heartfelt interludes, the trio decide to pursue an acoustic sound.

Enlisting an old friend and record producer to collaborate on paring down their high-energy electronic compositions, the musicians return to their roots as live instrumentalists. They go from using sampled strings to recording and performing with a full orchestra. It’s a tectonic stylistic shift, and, accordingly, the documentary raises the issue of the immense risk involved for the band, both commercially and artistically.

However, despite constantly posing the question of whether fans will follow A&B in their new direction, the film sustains zero suspense in the matter by deploying plenty of high-definition video proof that their fans’ admiration isn’t even slightly diminished.

Building to the band’s sold-out show at the Hollywood Bowl, the doc follows Above & Beyond through acoustic rehearsals, backed by live strings and horns, to performances at London’s Royal Albert Hall and Berkeley’s Greek Theatre. The concert footage, featuring an impressive trio of guest vocalists, conveys the band’s newly lush, orchestral sound, if not much of a sense of being at the live event.

The editors focus heavily on fans in the audience cheering, crying, singing along, passionately moved by the music. The unanimously effusive cutaways venture closer to marketing than mere documentation. Meanwhile, Jono, Tony and Paavo aren’t developed as characters in what is purportedly their story. At one point, in an unidentified voiceover, someone in the group describes what music means to him “personally,” but that doesn’t mean much to a viewer who has no idea which Above & Beyond person is speaking.

Their producer, Bob, gets more of a storyline than anyone in the group. His deliberately paced arrangements free the band’s soaring melodies, though a few of the numbers don’t so much soar as slog. The band members voice an intention to strip the dance from their dance music, and by the sound of it, that goal has been achieved—to the apparent delight of their still-rapt audiences.

The delight of any viewer of the film will depend on their familiarity with the group, and their willingness to become more familiar based on Above & Beyond Acoustic’s uplifting (for some) songs and performances. To the uninitiated ear, that uplift is undercut slightly by a sanctimoniousness in the lyrics amplified by the songs’ arrangements as ballads. Lyrics like “Are you hoping for a miracle/As the icecaps melt away?” sound preachy when slowed down to the pace of a hymn.

The film is preachy, too, in its own way, using images of mesmerized concert attendees to proselytize on behalf of loving this band. That approach might feel less manipulative if the film were willing to reveal a more complicated view of the history and humanity behind the music.

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