SXSW 2014: Swedish House Mafia’s ‘Leave the World Behind’ is a mystery-laden EDM flick

Swedish House Mafia performs at the Masquerade Motel two-day music festival at the Los Angeles State Historic Park
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

Sebastian Ingrosso is terrified of cheetahs.

Fans at SXSW learned this during a scene in the new Swedish House Mafia documentary “Leave the World Behind” in which the band, in the midst of its farewell tour, visits a wildlife sanctuary. The other members – Axwell and Steve Angello – sidle up next to a pile of bored-looking big cats, while the usually floppy and fun-loving Ingrosso suddenly turns stiff and panicked. As one cheetah gently licks his hand, he suddenly bolts for the door of the enclosure, and stays behind a locked gate while the rest of the band laughs at him.

The scene in the film (which premiered Wednesday at SXSW) is kind of a metaphor for the band’s demise. Its members get close to something wild, untamable and accelerating at impossible speed. So they get the jitters and leave.

That’s the movie’s takeaway about what happened to the Swedish EDM trio, who at the height of their powers were one of the biggest touring acts on Earth and the crest of the modern EDM wave. Last year they packed it in for good, and “Leave the World Behind” is an attempt to document the spectacle of their going-away party -- and a shot at closure for the millions of young EDM fans introduced to house music through their brash, stadium-sized triumphalism.


PHOTOS: The scene at SXSW 2014

The documentary, directed by Christian Larson, starts off lightly. There are knowingly silly long shots of the trio driving a cheeseball speedboat around what looks like Miami Beach. Them hanging out pre-tour, acting like bored college bros who suddenly came into a mountain of cash.

Angello revels in the myriad clothes hangers he has for his extensive black T-shirt collection. Ingrosso has many complaints related to uncomfortable hoodies. Animated scenes describe their musical coming-of-age freaking out to Daft Punk. It’s all cute and pretty self-aware on behalf of the band, who freely admit throughout the movie that Swedish House Mafia was kind of a party lark that unexpectedly made them one of the world’s biggest bands right when the American EDM wave was at full velocity.

And lo, those concert shots. Once the band announces their impending demise (with unnervingly good humor in press interviews), the movie becomes more of a straightforwardly beautiful concert doc, framing pristine locked-off shots of lissome ravers against the seas of throbbing teens and 20-somethings in attendance. LED screens explode with skyscraper-sized digital models of the band’s faces; they hoist Swedish flags to every corner of the globe. So much arena rave is pre-programmed to match visual projections and pyrotechnics, but as the movie makes clear, it isn’t about the performance itself so much as it is performing the act of having the night of your life, and the SHM guys clearly are. I was at their L.A. sendoff-festival show seen in the film, and even the most stubborn rave skeptic would have a hard time holding that kind of fun against these guys.

Therein lies the question that “Leave the World Behind” sort of answers, but ultimately avoids. Why on earth would you quit something like that?

PHOTOS: Car plows into crowd at SXSW

That’s usually the problem in these kind of band-in-peril movies. To have perfect access to the artist is to engender trust, and thus cede control somewhat. Larson actually does a pretty fair job of presenting the band as both rave gods and knuckleheads at times. Ingrosso has a particularly unflattering moment when he refuses a wreath of flowers at a Malaysian hotel, and when he is told that it’s part of the culture to take one, he dismissively curses. The film’s not quite journalism, but it is definitely not a hagiography, and you really do come to know the trio as people who are incredibly good at their jobs and have a glacially wide dude-bro streak.

“Leave the World Behind” only glances at the reasons why the band would call it a day. The film’s take is that there was an inbalance of caring -- Axwell, the chisel-jawed pinup, unexpectedly turns out to be the most invested in the group. Angello bails on writing sessions to get new tattoos, and Ingrosso’s relentless high-and-low energy kind of pisses off his bandmates. The group has to set a public deadline for the release of their biggest single “Don’t You Worry Child,” or else they know they’ll never finish it.

The asymmetry between their reasons for breaking up and how much fun they’re plainly having onstage is striking. EDM is unique in members of a group can all do solo projects and spend time apart fairly easily; if they needed to take a year off, they could have worked solo and come right back to where they started. Band dynamics are, like marriages, completely incomprehensible to those outside of it. But “Leave the World Behind” would have benefited from a little more specificity as to everyone’s reasons for not caring about being in one of the most successful acts on the planet.

That said, the film is a considerable addition to the modern concert-doc genre and a fair, appealing look behind the vapid EDM Peace-Love-Unity-Respect veneer, and into the lived experience of a band who had the gumption or boneheadedness to call it off in the midst of achieving everything they wanted. Axwell, who earlier in the film wore a more profane T-shirt proclaiming “Have sex with me, I’m Axwell,” ended up having the most cutting insight into the fear lurking behind the decision: “Remember MTV’s one-hit-wonder show? ‘And now, here’s Swedish House Mafia: One of them is a crack addict, they bought all these houses they couldn’t afford, and they had a reunion tour that didn’t go so well. So anyway, here is Swedish House Mafia with ‘Don’t You Worry Child.’”

Unlike a cheetah bite, that’s a fate to be truly afraid of.


PHOTOS: The scene at SXSW 2014

PHOTOS: Car plows into crowd at SXSW

RELATED: 2 killed at SXSW: ‘The most horrific thing I’ve ever seen’