'What We Started' looks at dance music history and raises questions about a way forward

The new EDM documentary “What We Started” begins with an ending.

Some of the first shots in the film follow DJ Carl Cox as he walks around the empty cavern of Space in Ibiza, the nightclub where he’d served as resident DJ since 2001. Cox is a North Star for contemporary house, techno and EDM, as the 54-year-old has been performing around the world for three decades.

The film juxtaposes his emotional walk around the venue, which closed last year, with the teenage EDM phenom Martin Garrix’s headlining set at Ultra festival in Miami.

It’s both a changing of the guard and a line connecting generations of DJs. But with so much up in the air about the future of festivals, nightclubs, warehouse parties and the other foundations of dance music, can a look back at its history and founding figures teach us something new?

“So much of this culture is rooted in human resilience,” said director Bert Marcus. His previous documentaries on boxing and drug dealing all follow people risking their lives in extreme subcultures, and there are echoes of those interests here: “This is music that struggled for survival.”

“What We Started” premiered this week at the L.A. Film Festival, and in a post-Ghost Ship world where cities are taking a closer look at off-the-grid venues, even the largest festivals and poshest super-clubs could feel jittery about the future. Perhaps, then, there’s a lesson in the challenges faced in the rave scene of yore.

The movie is chock full of interviews with some of the usual rave-doc figures (Pete Tong, Richie Hawtin) and more unusual contemporary figures (Ed Sheeran, Usher) who speak to dance music’s pervasiveness in pop culture.

But the real relevance of the movie comes not in the footage of an ascendant Garrix and American EDM culture, but in old BBC newsreels on clandestine farm field raves, Detroit after-hours techno bacchanals and faded crowd videos from sprawling ’90s events like Love Parade. These scenes caught a nascent culture figuring out its own rules, in the face of police and a mainstream culture that had no idea what to do with it.

“I’ve been DJing since the early ’80s, and back then there was no structure at all,” Cox said. “Martin [Garrix] wasn’t even alive then. The movie really shows what can happen if you truly believe in this music. It’s timeless and allows you to evolve and reinvent yourself.”

We’re entering another, similar moment of reinvention now, as cities struggle to foster a thriving, well-regulated music and nightlife economy and an oversaturated festival market looks poised for major corrections.

Back then, as cities stamped out illegal or ad hoc, independent raves, they came back as corporate mega-festivals. Fests like EDC (which happens this weekend) and Hard Summer are still behemoths, but the wave of mega-promoter acquisitions and high-stakes bets on the rave economy didn’t seem to lead to a flourishing of creativity.

“What We Started” doesn’t really have prescriptions for the current ills of raving, but its wealth of history could remind modern audiences that the music has been through all this before, under even more adverse circumstances.

“The culture is no joke. It’s proven itself as an industry,” Cox said. “People have lived their whole lives in this scene and moved it forward. There’s no textbook for that.”

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