In the past few years, EDM has become one of the most, if not the most, dominant subculture in popular music. Naturally, people are interested in learning about it from the outside.
EDM culture has a series of stereotypical buzzwords that are easily identified by laypeople (music festivals, neon colors, drugs) but its tropes are nowhere near as deeply encoded into the collective consciousness as those of rock or rap. As EDM continues to flourish, there is an increased need for people to understand what they are supposed to think about when they think about electronica: what kind of people like this music, why do they like it, and what does it all look like?
Movies are the easiest way to convey this kind of information, because movies tend to play well with collective, generalized versions of reality. And, as expected, there have been a couple of EDM movies released over the past few years, all with the basic goal of explaining to the public what EDM is and why they should care. Unfortunately, all these movies have pretty much failed.
I understand there may be lots of fans of We Are Your Friends and Netflix’s XOXO, but I find neither of them good, and the bulk of critics and consumers agree. When it debuted, We Are Your Friends had the fourth worst box office performance of the year for a 2000+ theater release, and it currently holds a 41% rotten rating on Rotten Tomatoes; XOXO holds 71% out of 7 official reviews (audience ratings are much lower at 53%), but even the most positive reviews concede that the movie is ridiculous.
“XOXO is admirable for its often misguided efforts to wrap its giddy, flailing arms around a very real cultural phenomenon and give it a big bro-hug” – Thrillist
What exactly was wrong with those two stabs at making a big EDM movie? On the surface it’s difficult to say. Both do a fairly competent job of explaining what DJ’s do, how EDM works, and why people like it. Both have good soundtracks, famous actors, and colorful, broadly appealing style. So what gives? Why didn’t these movies strike a chord with the public in the way that their musical subject does?
The thing I find with EDM generally, is that it has a fair amount of self-consciousness about its own outlaw status. This makes sense, in a way. EDM is probably the most maligned musical subgenre in intellectual circles, mostly because it is kind of the least intellectual scene around; prioritizing the physical, working for (not against) audience expectations, typically lacking in any obvious socio-political meaning. This is, obviously, not a bad thing at all. EDM is complex, interesting, and meaningful, but not in ways that are always easily appreciable, and that is fine: pretensions of deepness should hardly be part of the job description for dance music. EDM music should be hedonistic and unapologetic, it’s a big part of what makes it enjoyable.
Movies about EDM do not seem to agree with this sentiment. Both We Are Your Friends and XOXO show the drugs and partying, but neither one is content to let the spectacle speak for itself; both ruin their own free-spiritedness by attempting to justify the partying as some kind of beautiful, friendship-fueled love rite that’s all really about finding yourself, learning to be brave, etc. An example of this impulse in WAYF is Zac Efron’s unbearably sentimental DJ character’s tendency to go on countless long monologues about the beauty of EDM, monologues like:
“These days, you can invent an app, start a blog, sell shit online. But if you’re a DJ, you’re gonna need to star with one track. And if it’s real enough… and honest enough… And if it’s made of everything that’s made you… where you come from… who you knew… your history… then you may have a chance a connecting with everyone else. And maybe that’s your ticket. To everything.”
Kind of groan-worthy. And XOXO is not much better; it’s basically the same uplifting thesis that WAYF is but replete with a sugary rom-com plot between two unrealistically pure party-goers.
Is there something wrong with trying to elevate the base elements of EDM into some broader “life is beautiful” sentiment? Well…kind of. However valid the positive messages of WAYF and XOXO are, they don’t really capture what is actually engaging about EDM and festival culture, which is basically just “fun”. You shouldn’t be forced to examine why a party is meaningful while you’re at that party, you should just enjoy it. EDM movies basically only need to be cool, but their desire to be so much more adds a level of unnecessary pretension to the pageantry, a level of pretension that the music usually eschews (and wisely so).
In the early days of rock and roll, film attempts at explaining the subculture to a wider audience did not try too hard to make people take it seriously. One of the most acclaimed early rock films, Frank Tashlin’s The Girl Can’t Help It, actually pokes a lot of fun at rock music; Jayne Mansfield’s character in the film finds success in rock and roll because her light bulb-shattering voice is a fun gimmick to use as a sound effect in rock songs. That film makes the rock scene look as mercenary as it actually was, but it’s still transcendent by nature of its performances from real artists of the period. Watching that movie today, it’s refreshingly unpretentious, but does hold deep meaning in its simple ability to convey the basic magnetism of rock performers. It gets to the root of why rock mattered then (rock was entertainment), but doesn’t try to literally explain that fact and justify its social purpose in unnecessary ways.
EDM movies seem afraid to let the basic attractiveness of electronic music speak for itself. The incessant need to explain why EDM is more than just fun makes the audience skeptical that it actually is, because it ends up looking like a scene with something to prove rather than a scene that’s effortlessly interesting without added context.
Were I to direct an EDM film, I would put almost all of the emphasis on the performers. Attempting to capture the music in a visceral, elaborately shot way would be far superior to explaining in-film why it’s all so cool. The film Whiplash is an oddly effective template for what I think an EDM film should look like: most of the scenes are just visual attempts at making jazz drummer looking like a high octane sport, and there aren’t any corny monologues about how, “drumming is like soaring through the air, free as a bird”.
In essence, EDM films tend to take their subject both too seriously and not seriously enough. They put all their emphasis on justifying EDM’s social value while reducing the inherent intensity of the music to a mere support system for that value, rather than exalting that intensity as the value in and of itself. If EDM is going to be movie material, it’s going to have to stand on its own in non-verbal, hedonistic glory. Thus far, we’ve only gotten tiresome lectures.