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Review: EDM Documentary ‘Under The Electric Sky’

Review: EDM Documentary 'Under The Electric Sky'

For listeners of electronic dance music (EDM for short), the annual all-EDM festival Electric Daisy Carnival is their Valhalla. A sprawling, neon-lit wonderland that takes the “carnival” aspect of its title very seriously, the festival gets bigger and more expansive each year, with a number of high profile performers playing on a satellite of elaborately-themed stages. The Electric Daisy Carnival is another world, as vivid and colorful as Pandora, and it’s a testament to the power of “Under The Electric Sky,” a brand new 3D documentary about the festival, that you gain a deeper understanding of both what makes the festival such a magnetic destination and why EDM has become such a cultural touchstone for today’s youth.

The documentary begins with a brief bit of background on the festival, including some talking head interviews with Pasquale Rotella, the somewhat sleazy promoter who, throughout the nineties, helped transition from the underground raves of yore to the giant, multimedia spectacles that they have become today. Rotella, who also executive produced the documentary, comes across as an addled visionary – someone who is deeply in tune with what the kids want, willing to throw the money towards creating a true spectacle, and intent to fuss with the general layout and logistics until right before the doors to this massive outdoor undertaking are opened to the public. 

And an in-depth look at how the rave culture crawled out of dusty, police-raided basements and into the mainstream would have been fascinating (also, for the old fucks like myself out there, incredibly helpful). But that’s not what “Under the Electric Sky” is. Instead, we’re introduced to small clusters of “characters,” and in the same way that reality shows on MTV and Bravo (not to mention something like “The Real Cancun“) are “shaped” nonfiction, so too is “Under the Electric Sky.”

In short order, we meet our main “characters”: There’s the kid in the wheelchair who underwent surgery and wound up paralyzed, but who still is deeply in love with a type of music designed to make you move your body; the gaggle of frat bros who call themselves The Wolf Pack (yes, just like “The Hangover“) and who are traveling to the festival from the East Coast, in part as a remembrance to a fallen member of their troupe; the old ass ravers who now have a family and want to finally get married at the festival; a young couple who haven’t seen each other for months (and who are going to spend their only weekend together for many more months at an outdoor rave) and a painfully shy teenage girl who is traveling to the festival with her boyfriend. There’s also a bizarre, more amorphous subplot about a group of poly-amorous goofballs who want to marry each other at the festival, but they’re given such fleeting screen time (and make so little sense) that it’s almost not worth mentioning. 

There’s an element of outsider-dom to each of these characters, a sense that, in the real world, they’re somewhat apart. (The documentary only shows brief glimpses of their home and personal lives.) This idea serves the larger theme of the documentary, which is that the Electric Daisy Carnival is a place of unified love and acceptance, where the baggage of the outside world doesn’t fit through the festival’s turnstiles. Everything about the festival is designed to emphasize how deeply devoted everyone is to peace and love and grossly hugging the sweaty stranger next to you. The music, with its thudding, repetitive beats and occasional, chat-along choruses, backs this up. And periodically the movie will cut away to some practical, detail-oriented facet of the festival: a nurse patrolling the grounds making sure everyone is safe and medically okay, behind-the-scenes shenanigans with the performers that walk through the crowds, goofily engaging festival goers like costumed Disneyland characters. Even these more banal subplots reinforce what a magical, forget-all-your-cares place the Electric Daisy Carnival is.

Except… it isn’t. The documentary is set at the 2013 festival, a festival that was notable for being one of the few years when someone hasn’t died. The 2014 Electric Daisy Carnival was held over the weekend and two men, aged 24 and 25, died. In 2010, when the festival was held in Los Angeles, 100 people were hospitalized. Both 2011 (when the festival was in Dallas) and 2012 (when it relocated to Las Vegas) were also marred by deaths. “Under The Electric Sky,” since it was produced in conjunction with the concert, bends over backwards to showcase just what a safe and welcome environment the festival is. Rave culture has always been intrinsically linked with drugs, and while you never see any of the characters in the movie consume them, it’s an unseen danger, like the shark from “Jaws,” lurking just underneath the otherwise placid surface.

All of the attention given to the handful of attendees that the documentarians (led by directors Dan Cutforth and Jane Lipstiz) also does much to take away from the actual music element of this concert documentary, which is a shame. The most buoyant, hands-in-the-air moments of the documentary usually occur when a DJ (folks like Armin Van Burren, Avicii, Calvin Harris, and, amazingly, Fatboy Slim) drops a track that connects with the audience in an almost cosmic way, and the entire energy is transferred, in gorgeously Day-Glo 3D. It’s just that these moments are few and far between, with many of the musical acts cut short, in order to cut away to one of these banal human subplots or some other bit of nagging esoteric business.

“Under The Electric Sky” shows you the transformative, incredibly positive power of dance music, but in terms of a movie, it falls a little flat. Unlike “Leave the World Behind,” the recent, downright wonderful documentary about dance act Swedish House Mafia, which was fueled my narcissism, ego, and destructive self-doubt, “Under The Electric Sky” is content to just be about the shiny happy people who go to raves like this in order to escape their dreariness of their daily lives. Which is all well and good. But it’s not all that compelling. And especially when so little of the film’s running time is devoted to the musicians, many of whom play on an enormous stage adorned by a giant, wobbling owl head (we couldn’t help but think of Bohemian Grove, the supposed occultist gathering of the New World Order). “Under The Electric Sky” does a great job of showing the appeal of EDM, and can be an occasionally thrilling document of the musicians who create these infections beats. But on a human level, well, it could have used some more electric participants. [B-]

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