‘What We Started’ review: EDM doc a brief but rich survey of the music form

‘What We Started’

Documentary directed by Bert Marcus, Cyrus Saidi


Playing at City Cinemas Village East

Electronic dance music is not a genre that is generally in love with its own history. It’s hard to trace, for one: The style spans the globe, meaning that a DJ from Detroit (home of techno music) will see the formative years differently than one from London. But like most comparatively-young styles of music, it is also obsessed with what’s ahead, what’s next.

The form’s past gets its due in “What We Started,” a documentary opening on Friday at Village East Cinema. Starting from the disco roots of dance music and moving through today’s EDM, the overview examines the history, present and future of the genre guided by the stories of one DJ coming to the end of an era, and another on his meteoric rise.

The twin stories at the film’s heart are those of Carl Cox, one of dance music’s guiding lights, and 21-year-old wunderkind Martin Garrix, who broke into the Billboard charts with his hit “Animals” in 2013. The former is shown wrapping up a record-setting 15-year residency at Space nightclub in Ibiza, the genre’s spiritual home; the latter is shown preparing for his first performance on the main stage of Ultra Music Festival in Miami.

But those stories exist mostly to frame the history of the form itself, from the death of disco through the basement clubs of the ’80s, the illegal raves of the ’90s, and the music’s collapse in America in the early 2000s. Interviews with superstars like Paul Oakenfold, Tiesto and Moby, among many, provide important context for the evolution of technology, drug usage and more.

A shade over 90 minutes isn’t enough to dive into every aspect of dance music’s history. With the exception of one comment, little is made of the idea that the disco backlash was a reaction in part by the demographics of the genre’s fans (many of whom were black and/or gay), or the similar roots of house and techno. Other forms of electronic dance get left out, as well; England’s contributions to jungle, drum and bass and other subgenres don’t make the final cut.

However, for a genre rarely taken seriously enough to be depicted properly by Hollywood (looking at you, “We Are Your Friends”), “What We Started” is a must-view for newer and younger dance music fans. And for those who don’t understand the people on stage “just hitting play” on a laptop, the documentary provides both the history and the modern context needed to make sense of it all.

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