Carl Cox in What We Started (Photo: Bert Marcus Productions)

WHAT WE STARTED (2018)
★★★ (out of four)
DIRECTED BY Bert Marcus & Cyrus Saidi
STARS Carl Cox, Martin Garrix

There naturally tends to be more prickly drama in adversity than acceptance, and that can be seen in an early discussion in What We Started, an illuminating and entertaining documentary about electronic dance music (EDM).

As is often the case in art, the conflict is between old-school and new-school. In the world of cinema, for instance, there are those who favor practical visual effects over CGI, feeling that there’s not as much skill in programming a computer as there is in painstakingly making a miniature dinosaur move one step at a time. Similarly, in the world of EDM, the veteran DJs are the ones who can simultaneously scratch five records during their live gigs while the newbies are the ones who preload a USB stick with music for a show they will host days or weeks later. As one old-school practitioner of the craft grumbles, if you’re standing up there on the stage waving your arms for three-fourths of the show, how is that DJing?

By the end of What We Started, all naysayers have come around to embracing both old- and new-school DJing, which seems appropriate for a musical revolution that once was underground but now strives to invite everyone to the party.

Many DJs are on hand throughout the picture to discuss EDM (Paul Oakenfold, David Guetta, Tiësto, etc.), as are a few mainstream artists (Usher and Ed Sheeran among them) who were wise enough to recognize the writing — or, rather, the strobe lights — on the wall and sought to partner themselves with genre superstars. The film’s focus, though, is mainly on two individuals, each representing opposite ends of the spectrum.

The British Carl Cox, 54 years of age at the time of filming (2016), has been a DJ since the 1980s and is set to retire from his 15-year stint at the award-winning Space nightclub in Ibiza, Spain. A tireless performer, Cox jams like no one else, with a reputation for performing an astonishing 10 hours straight.

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Martin Garrix in What We Started

The Dutch Martin Garrix, a mere 20 years old at the time of production, first picked up an instrument at the age of 8, signed his first record deal at the age of 16, and scored his first smash hit (“Animals”) at the age of 17. Despite all his early success, he’s still understandably nervous as he prepares to tackle his first headlining appearance at Miami’s Ultra Music Festival.

It’s thrilling to watch Cox in action, and I would imagine that his live gigs had a spontaneous electricity that would be hard for any computer-dependent DJ to match. That’s not meant as a knock on young Martin, who’s clearly a whiz kid at the keyboard. Many of the film’s most entertaining vignettes occur during the portions centering on Martin, such as when he discusses how record executives were so dubious that this talent was pouring out of a teenage boy that he had to invite them to his home and into his bedroom so they could see all the hard evidence.

In addition to featuring a number of talking heads chatting about the here and now, What We Started also takes time out to examine the history of the movement, which was birthed from disco. Any initial headway seemed to be tempered with the so-called “death of disco” — and, yes, there’s footage from the infamous Disco Demolition Night held at Chicago’s Comiskey Park in 1979. (As a side note, the event looks more disturbing than ever, as an audience of 50,000 people, overwhelmingly white and overwhelmingly male, torch albums created by mostly black and/or gay men; if it happened today, there would be a sea of MAGA hats surrounding this American equivalent of the Nazi book burnings. But I digress.)

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Martin Garrix and Carl Cox in What We Started

Yet despite the downfall of disco, the seeds of EDM had already been planted, and the film charts the winding history through Detroit techno, Chicago house, the European connections, the illegal raves, and other important checkpoints. Admittedly, it’s a hasty history lesson, and a better balance between the grit of the past and the glitter of the present would have been appreciated (drugs are mentioned, but almost as an afterthought).

What We Started isn’t a speaking-to-the-choir movie — quite the opposite, as it’s difficult to believe there’s much information on tap here that wouldn’t already be known by hardcore EDM disciples. But as a primer for those with little or no knowledge, it should strike the right note.

(What We Started is available on Amazon Prime, Netflix, VUDU, FandangoNOW, and other streaming services.)

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