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Netflix hopes to do the dance community justice with 'XOXO' and 'I'll Sleep When I'm Dead'

We’re a decade into the EDM boom of the 2000s. So why hasn’t there been a great American television show or movie set within the scene?

EDM – and all the raptures, perils and outsize personalities that come with it – would seem a natural setting for film. Its exaggerated stage productions are science fiction in scope, and its egos are Shakespearean.

There have been fun and savvy movies set within the world of club-music culture – “24 Hour Party People,” “Go” and, more recently, the crime thriller “Victoria.”

But the first major attempt to make a large-scale feature film explicitly about today’s EDM scene, 2015’s “We Are Your Friends” starring Zac Efron as a rising DJ, was an unprecedented brick, one of the worst box office debuts in history for a widely released film.  

But maybe a change is coming.

“Eden,” a 2015 scripted feature set in the French DJ scene that birthed Daft Punk, did much better with critics. And there’s never been a busier time for ambitious, high-budget features and shows about musicians and music scenes — “The Get Down,” “Roadies,” “Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll,” “Whiplash,” “Straight Outta Compton” and “Born to Be Blue,” among others.

Two new Netflix original features — the scripted “XOXO,” set at a fictional mega-festival that evokes Electric Daisy Carnival, and the Steve Aoki documentary “I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead” — are set in the EDM scene and try to capture contemporary feelings beyond mere partying. 

Young fans may finally be ready to see their experiences at mega-raves reflected on screen.

But filmmakers can’t just rely on EDM as a pop-culture phenomenon. They’ll have to appeal to a wider range of fans through old-fashioned storytelling.

“In essence, [‘XOXO ] is about self-discovery, but because its backdrop is the modern day festival experience, it makes that self-discovery more exciting, present, and alive,” Ted Sarandos, Netflix's chief content officer, said in an email.

Christopher Louie, the director of “XOXO,” grew up DJing in Southern California’s rave scene in the ‘90s. 

For him, that enticing, licentious scene of all-night parties and cutting-edge music opened the possibility of new worlds.

“Being biracial, I never had a group with which to identify myself,” Louie said. (He’s Mexican and Chinese.) “The rave scene was like the punk scene in the ’70s — it was danger, drugs, word of mouth. It was weird, primal and mystical.”

It also almost did him in — an escalating drug habit forced him to reassess what he was really looking for when he went out. Ultimately, it turns out that a good EDM festival is just a backdrop for all the relationships that people bring to it.

That’s what drives “XOXO,” which Louie described as “‘Dazed and Confused’ at a rave.”

The film is a neon-hued romp that follows a group of friends and rave-mates — an aspirant DJ, his manager/ best friend,  a grizzled rave-scene vet and a malevolent headline DJ among them — as they make their way into (and onstage at) a fictionalized version of Electric Daisy Carnival. 

The movie, which stars Graham Phillips (“The Good Wife”), Chris D’Elia (“Undateable”) and Sarah Hyland (“Modern Family”), makes the EDM festival scene feel like a dream world.

Louie shot largely on actual festival locations (he won’t say which ones, specifically), including for the film’s climactic shot, for which the DJ Deorro gave more than 10 minutes of his main-stage set so the filmmakers could film its lead performing for a real crowd. When the characters ascend the staircase to the DJ booth, that’s what it really looks like to headline an EDM festival.

“Without that shot, we don’t have a movie. So during that whole scene where they’re walking up the stairs, I imagined our cameraman accidentally falling, and I thought, ‘I’ll just have to shoot this on my iPhone,’” Louie said, laughing. “But once we got the shot and knew we were going to make it, you can see us start dancing onstage.”

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Louie, a longtime music video director for Death Cab for Cutie and other acts, enlisted some of the pivotal figures in the current scene to help secure access and curate an on-point soundtrack, including WME’s global head of electronic music, Joel Zimmerman, and Pete Tong, the longtime BBC DJ (and a reference in another good club-music movie, “It’s All Gone Pete Tong”). Tong, perhaps more than anyone, has helped bring dance music to mass audiences.

The soundtrack, which Tong supervised, is packed with the scene’s essential artists (Galantis with East & Young and Michael Brun have the pivotal themes; Skrillex, Disclosure and Diplo show up as well).

“This wasn’t a huge-budget movie, but what we had, we spent on music,” Tong said.

Authenticity was key. Audiences are primed to distrust mainstream EDM movies at this point. The shadow of “We Are Your Friends,” in which Efron plays a bro-ish DJ hitting all the typical music-biz snares, hangs over almost every mention of a potential EDM-based show or film. 

Tong said that even though “XOXO” was already in production when “Friends” came out, “It really hurt us, it was a big setback for other electronic-music movies getting made.”

But like what “8 Mile” did for hip-hop at the time, or what “Eden” or the U.K.’s “Human Traffic” did for those countries’ dance scenes, Louie and Tong hoped that “XOXO” could simply tell one story well. That means it didn’t have to try to define a scene in its entirety.

“It would be a tragedy if we can’t find ways for this [music scene] to be recorded and celebrated in film,” Tong said. “This is a foot in the door, but we have so much to do.”

Where “XOXO” takes a sweeping view of the visceral festival experience, “I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead” is almost its inverse. The documentary, on L.A. DJ and label owner Aoki, catches the artist at the peak of his career, just before a planned 2014 album release and Madison Square Garden show (eventually moved to the streets of downtown L.A.).

Aoki is one of the more larger-than-life fun figures in EDM, famous for throwing cakes into the audience and crowd-surfing in inflatable rafts.

But director Justin Krook and producer David Gelb cut through the boisterous concerts to find something more complex — the fraught parental relationship between Aoki and his dad, the charismatic Benihana restaurant founder Rocky Aoki. 

Steve endured ribbing throughout his career for being the scion of a restaurant fortune. But as “Sleep” portrays it, his father’s influence was, in turn, distant and dazzling; Rocky was a well of anxiety and idolatry for Steve. A visit to Rocky’s gravesite ispoignant and reveals the workaholic melancholy beneath Aoki’s good-times exterior.

“When I go out onstage, it’s all about fun and energy and music,” Aoki said. “I don’t want to dip into the personal stuff. I could never navigate it. I never dove into heavy subjects before and I don’t really talk about my family. So [the film] is heavy to watch, and when I do, I feel a bit naked. You get the good, the bad, the critics and tragedies,” like his friendship the late DJ AM, whose death still haunts the scene.

Gelb, in particular, has worked with themes of patriarchal influence and how it informs a profession (he previously directed “Jiro Dreams of Sushi” and created the Netflix show “Chef’s Table”). There’s a similar poignancy in “Sleep,” which is really about a son finding his own path in the presence of a powerful father.

But for anyone who hit up Aoki’s Dim Mak parties on Tuesdays at Cinespace in the mid-2000s, there’s also a glowing nostalgia for a pre-camera-phone, pre-social-media era of going out in L.A.

Aoki did more than almost anyone to translate electronic music for all the indie, punk and hip-hop kids who now take it as a default. It’s time Aoki got that due, and “Sleep” captures that rowdy, Cobrasnake/Cory Kennedy/Last Night’s Party era  with a fond innocence.

“It was more social; there weren’t a million phones up all the time,” Aoki said. “You had to bring an actual camera out to the club, and if you wanted to see pictures you had to go to Cobrasnake’s website. That’s why it was more sacred and special to be there, and it would be impossible to replicate it now.”

Sarandos agreed that “Sleep” finds something more complex and meaningful in Aoki’s career than casual fans might expect. 

“While [Aoki’s] globetrotting antics are well known amongst his fans, it's remarkable how David Gelb, Justin Krook and their team were able to pull back the curtain for a deep, introspective look into Steve's secret motivation and complicated relationship with his father,” he said.

In an age of constant live-streamed documentation, EDM fans might not need movies to remind them of those good times. But today’s dance music audiences also might find something like their own innocence and experience captured in these films. Maybe EDM — one of the defining cultural shifts of the decade — is starting to get the narrative attention it deserves.

 


5 must-see films about dance culture 

Today’s EDM festival scene hasn’t yet yielded too many notable feature films. But the broader world of club music has served as a setting for some fine movies. Here are a few of the best.

“24 Hour Party People,” 2002

The story of the founding of Manchester’s Factory Records, the movies starts at the tail end of punk and ends on the packed dancefloors of the legendary club Hacienda, where everything that could go wrong did. Steve Coogan as label founder Tony Wilson is drolly hilarious, and the post-punk, proto-rave soundtrack is untouchable.

“Victoria,” 2015

This Berlin-set thriller was famous for its one-take structure, but few other movies have captured the languid joy, late-night delirium and catastrophic decision-making that can come from a weekend bender in the underground club scene.

“Spring Breakers,” 2012

From the first notes of Skrillex’s “Scary Monsters & Nice Sprites,” Harmony Korine’s neon-noir uses EDM sounds and images to make crushing beers on a Florida beach feel like existential horror. 

“Human Traffic,” 1999

There are movies about drugs, and there are movies that feel like drugs. This is the latter. It’s raver characters are all looking to escape life’s tedium via psychedelic dancefloors. But the soundtrack and pacing hit all the peaks and valleys of an all-night romp. One of the most empathetic and on-point movies made about clubbing.

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