Film Review: What We Started

'What We Started' hauls out some of EDM’s biggest guns for this solid documentary overview of dance-music DJs.
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From the overlapping snippets of sound and images comprising the opening montage of electronic dance music documentary What We Started, a voice emerges to declare that the biggest misconception hovering around the EDM movement is that “dance music is a new thing.” But who thinks that?

This film, co-written and co-directed by Bert Marcus and Cyrus Saidi, seems firmly pitched towards an audience who already knows, loves and cares enough about the beats and culture of the genre to enter with the cursory knowledge that dance music wasn’t born yesterday. What What We Started does well is fill in the details of how the genre has evolved since the days of disco, powered by pioneering DJs, producers and club promoters.

Telling its story exclusively from the perspective of the pros behind the turntables, inside the DJ booths and recording studios, the movie assembles an all-star cast of dance-music makers, from stadium-filling DJ Tiësto, to award-winning remix master Paul Oakenfold and Top 40-charting trailblazer David Guetta. Pop-music superstars Ed Sheeran and Usher also make appearances to add their voices from the recording studio. However, U.K.-born club DJ and producer Carl Cox, considered a legend in the game, and 18-year old Dutch dance-music wunderkind Martin Garrix, the current cover boy of the movement, are the sole figures to be fleshed out with (mildly) compelling personal stories.

Posited as the rich past giving way to the fresh future of EDM, Cox and Garrix embody diverging trajectories, with the 54-year old Cox stepping down from his 15-year stint as the resident DJ at one of Ibiza’s top nightclubs, just as a then-17-year old Garrix was debuting on the mainstage of Miami’s Ultra Music Festival before a roaring crowd of thousands. They’re presented a bit too patly as polar opposites—Cox, the gregarious, rotund black elder statesman, and Garrix, the lanky, doe-eyed white teen—but their parallel plotlines at least add a hint of drama.

Otherwise, the doc offers a strong chronology, from ’70s dance floors and ’90s warehouse raves to massive, multi-stage EDM extravaganzas like Ultra—although minus the inflection of personality that comes with well-developed characters, as in other surveys of underground scenes like Paris Is Burning. And the forays into the de facto lead characters’ lives leave several intriguing threads dangling. For instance, Cox boasts of once completing a 10-hour continuous set behind the turntables, and the film aptly conveys the seemingly indefatigable DJ’s infectious energy. It begs the question why he’s stopping now, but the film doesn’t address his motivations specifically, except to generally point out how DJ-ing has evolved, like much of modern life, to rely on a certain quotient of visual packaging. Garrix not only creates music that moves the masses, he presents a youthful, attractive visual package that sells internationally.

The youngster’s success inspires perhaps the most intense emotions captured in the film, as underground DJ and producer Seth Troxler exclaims, “How is a 17-year old kid the fucking face of dance music?!?” Oakenfold, who broke out as opening act on U2’s ZooTV tour, also wonders how this untried kid is headlining one of their industry’s biggest stages. Additionally, the filmmakers uncover some intense, or just plain catty, emotions when engaging debate about the scene’s supposedly widening schism between the art of underground music-making versus the outsized commerce of EDM. The latter is exemplified here by hitmakers like Deadmaus and Steve Aoki, who are criticized for performing live sets in which they don’t mix tracks like a “real” DJ but instead simply play pre-recorded sets programmed into a laptop or saved as a file on a USB stick.

Some of the carping comes off as petty in-fighting among chaps who all are doing well for themselves, but those piques of passion are entertaining, as is the film’s nonstop soundtrack of EDM, house and techno, both familiar classics and underground tracks. Of course, those beats, breaks and drops will be just noise to some who don’t or can’t appreciate what is described in the film as an experience of freedom, escape and community transmitted through the conduit of music. But for EDM fans eager to hear from their heroes, What We Started will be essential viewing.

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