Electronic Dance Music (EDM) is at all time high in global popularity. But just what exactly is EDM? 30 years in the making, the documentary WHAT WE STARTED from directors Bert Marcus and Cyrus Saidi, takes us through the decades from the days of disco and the emergence of “clubs” with DJ’s spinning records to the birth of EDM, to its fall from grace, and now finally, to its global resurgence and achieving the pinnacle of its popularity today. But not only is WHAT WE STARTED a cultural retelling of the last 30 years of EDM, but also its effect on music and culture as a whole.
Bookending the film with the stories of 18-year old Martin Garrix, currently the #1 EDM DJ in the world, and now 54-year old Carl Cox, a mainstay in EDM since the 1980’s and 15-year host of Space Iziba in Spain, WHAT WE STARTED is non-linear in its structure. Polar opposites, this dichotomous relationship is the backbone of the film. Strength comes from the great respect the entire industry has for Cox while Garrix now standing on the shoulders of EDM giants like Cox, is humbled and appreciative of the rich industry of which he is now a part.
Using the non-linear design to its benefit, homage is paid to the icons and pioneers of the industry and the huge rise in popularity of EDM over the past few years as the film is peppered with interviews with EDM legends like Cox, Tiesto and Sasha, along with Garrix and Cox. But then we also hear from musicians like Ed Sheeran, Usher, and Moby whose music correlates with the EDM world. Notable is that all of the interview subjects in WHAT WE STARTED are true to the essence and aura of the culture, each with personal stories, each passionately told.
As one watches WHAT WE STARTED, one of the striking elements which rings forth is the idea of “resiliency”. This is a genre that has fought for survival. Thanks to archival footage of events like Disco Demolition at Comiskey Park or the renowned Paradise Garage, much of which has never seen the light of day until now, we see that resiliency play out before us as we go back to the days of disco with clubs and DJ’s spinning records only to see the meltdown and destruction of disco and birth of EDM in, yes, New York, Detroit and Chicago. EDM was born in the United States.
Thanks to detailed research and a self-imposed mantra to remain unbiased in the presentation of the documentary, the filmmakers peel back the glossy layers of bright lights and enthusiastic concerts and delve into the darker aspects of culture that all but wiped out EDM prior to its rebirth and resurgence. Rave culture was seen as the essence of EDM for a long period. But because the drug culture was associated with raves, it played a big part of the demise of EDM thanks to The Rave Act. Surprising is that even some of the artists interviewed in the film are unaware of the music’s history.
Visually, WHAT WE STARTED is a stunner. Absolutely gorgeous and boasting high production values, there is a glossy polish to the film that grabs you visually and then leads you into the aural soundscape. A technical stunner. With filmmakers who obviously believe that the visuals are just as important as the music, they meld the two elements and provide a true experience, making the viewer feel like a part of the show or festival. Allan Duso and Greg Finton dazzle with rapier editing that bobs and weaves with a lyricism mirroring the beat of the EDM sound.
Capturing the essence and aura of the genre, WHAT WE STARTED will appeal to not just die-hard EDM fans but to anybody, thanks to the way in which is relates to various artists and the music. Fun and from the heart, WHAT WE STARTED is a journey of the music itself with music and culture being one of the stars.
Written and Directed by Bert Marcus and Cyrus Saidi
by debbie elias, 06/19/2017 (Los Angeles Film Festival review)