The electronic dance movement is now. Between French electronic outfit Daft Punk winning the Album of the Year Grammy while dressed as ice cream-colored robots, the Internet-dominating Beyonce surprise release, and earlier this week the release of a new album by 26-year-old dance music maven (and “Spring Breakers” composer) Skrillex — the 124-beats-per-second revolution is very much ongoing. And one of the acts that exemplified this new cultural movement – from their catchy, super dance-y singles to their blistering live show – was Swedish House Mafia. The Swedish trio, comprised of DJ/producers Axwell, Steve Angello and Sebastian Ingrasso, were at the top of their game and very much at the forefront of dance music, when they decided to call it quits. The surprisingly emotional and hands-in-the-air joyous documentary “Leave the World Behind” chronicles the band’s sold out worldwide farewell tour in 2012. Even if this whole scene leaves you absolutely baffled, the movie still soars.
The documentary, sharply directed and edited by Christian Larson and executive-produced by music video pioneer Jonas Akerlund, is pretty formal in its execution and doesn’t deviate too much from the standard music documentary format. The movie begins with a series of title cards about the band’s dissolution and the staggering trivia behind the tour (like the fact that they sold out Madison Square Garden in nine minutes) and then toggles backwards. The movie introduces the band members: Axwell is handsome and has a long shock of hair and acts as the band’s de facto ringleader, while Angello is dark, tattooed and bearded, giving off a broody energy even if he’s not actually brooding. And Ingrasso is a man who seems to be composed exclusively of nervous energy, and unlike the other two is relatively clean-cut.
They recount how the band was formed, somewhat haphazardly, based around their shared love of the Daft Punk album Homework and a curiosity about how far they could take that particular musical aesthetic. One of the band members describes the tour as they would describe the music, as an “assault on all senses.” As a band, they were still relatively new: they formed sometime in 2008 and have never released an entire album of original material. (Instead, the albums more closely resemble a long-form mix tape, where other artists rest alongside their original compositions and selected remixes.) But their popularity, along with the popularity of electronic dance music, exploded. They got heavily involved with drugs and partying and wanted to rein that in, instead focusing on their families and about putting out the best music they could. That was the idea at least.
Unlike the similar, SXSW-screened LCD Soundystem documentary “Shut Up and Play the Hits,” their break-up doesn’t feel like something that was based on some kind of intellectual whim. There is some deep-seeded resentment amongst the band members that is palpable in every frame of footage. Something went horribly wrong at some point. Throughout the documentary, you hear the different guys say things that give you this impression. Shortly after boarding a private plane to be flown to some far-off locale, Axwell says that there is a “worry of becoming one hit wonders.” Elsewhere, Ingrosso says that they “aren’t friends anymore,” while Axwell openly wonders whether or not any of the guys fully committed to the project, since they never even lived in the same place while trying to work on music together (and were constantly consumed with side projects and the ongoing drama of their personal lives). “We should have focused,” Axwell says, sadly. For a band whose music is built almost entirely around the premise of making people feel good, there are whole oceans of melancholy and self-loathing buried just underneath the surface.
But the music: wow. Whether or not you’ve totally bought into the dance music revolution (or even like the music) is almost beside the point. When you see these guys do their thing, flanked by three giant, rotating screens and playing to tens of thousands of adoring fans, it’s impossible to deny the music’s impact. These kids are feeling it. Most of the current slab of electronic music is built around the premise of the “drop:” the music will zoom skyward until it almost becomes unbearable, at which point the bottom shuts out and the euphoria is returned. It’s pretty incredible to listen to, when you’re watching an endless sea of undulating bodies dance in unison to the music and it becomes downright profound; an expressive, uniquely positive act of shared enthusiasm. Also: there are lasers.
In the same way that the music is built around the drop, so too is the documentary. It’s just that the drop never comes because there’s never a quiet moment when the three musicians are together, talking about what went wrong and why they aren’t getting along anymore. This missing moment is what keeps “Leave the World Behind” from being a truly great film. Because more often than not, the tour feels like the desperate, last-ditch effort for these guys to preserve what is left of their friendship. It adds an emotional depth to a movie built around music that people take ecstasy to, but it also means that the documentary, if it doesn’t fully engage with these issues, feels somewhat incomplete and unfinished. It could have been that the three guys never wanted to talk about this stuff, either to each other or a camera crew, but it feels like a damnably missed opportunity to make the movie truly special.
Instead, we get black-and-white flashbacks to 2011, when tensions were first starting to reach critical mass, and concert footage from around the world that more than adequately captures the scope and scale of the farewell tour. There’s the sensation, for the band and for those in the audience steadily gyrating along, that this is the best it’s ever going to get. The documentary almost gets there, and should be applauded for its visual boldness and emotional articulateness. Even if you’ve never attended a rave or thrown your hands in the air, the movie has a singular power. Woomp woomp woomp. [B]