Dangling from my car keys is a cheap, and now tattered, rubber keychain that is nothing more than three blue, interlocking lowercase letters: edc. It’s not a display piece, not a badge of honor, nor is it simply a trinket from a place once traveled; it’s a reminder of a temporary time and place where acceptance was the only uniformity and misery had its work cut out for itself in finding company. It’s an heirloom given by a family of 300,000+ strangers. An eclectic family that gathers on the infield of a NASCAR track in the Nevada desert for three, music-soaked, sundown to sunup nights every June. Welcome to the world’s largest electronic Music Festival: Electric Daisy Carnival. And in an effort to personalize and humanize the behemoth event, directors Dan Cutforth and Jane Lipsitz debuted their character study Documentary ‘Under the Electric Sky’ at this year’s Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Ut.
Premiering on the upper level of the Park City Library with a theater full of the filmmakers and EDC fanboys alike, it seemed odd that Insomniac would produce, what seemed to be, a concert film just a few short years after making the ‘Electric Daisy Carnival Experience.’ Sure, the festival moved north but did that require a whole new movie? The puzzlement only continued when the first ten minutes of this new 3D experience seemed to be nothing more than a Vegas epilogue to the ‘Electric Daisy Carnival Experience,’ only there to visually remind us that the event moved to a different venue. Abrupt jump cuts from overhead shots of fist pumping ravers to a winding LED wormhole counting down from ten felt like stereotypes being solidified. The galloping soundtrack from Kaskade (supervised by ‘Metropolis’ host Jason Bentley) built to an all too familiar drop at the moment the countdown hit zero and suddenly, and unexpectedly, faded to black. This was the first moment of perceptions not being what they seem.
As the reverb faded, the screen rose from a black screen to introduce us to the first of a cast of characters that are followed throughout their EDC anticipation, trip, experience and reclamation back to reality. We meet Sadie, a teenage Above & Beyond fan from Texas with an anxiety disorder that’s severe enough to keep her from driving. There’s Jose, a soft-spoken teenage boy confined to a wheelchair after a botched scoliosis surgery. There’s Jim and Jenna, a couple of young professionals who look like grandchildren of Mitt Romney and work on opposite ends of the globe that are meeting at EDC. There’s another couple, with kids of their own, who, while raising a seemingly well-adjusted family, have taken the Toys R Us motto of “I don’t want to grow up” a bit too seriously and have attended a double digit number of EDCs. As well as two separate groups of friends that were bait for pigeonholing into the ‘bro’ filled ‘Wolfpack’ and ‘YOLO-PLUR’ categories of stereotypes respectively.
True to form, the headliners of this EDC experience are the fans traveling to EDC; the DJs only briefly appear and are often only used to give a context for the stories being followed. Each story is meant to teach us something about the fans of EDM that couldn’t be surmised from a slow-mo Camera of them dancing. Whether you have been a longtime fan or a crusty old codger set on hating the culture, each story is meant to reshape your preconceived notions. Fans of EDM will probably want to write-off the ‘Wolfpack’ as nothing but Hangover loving, beer-chugging ruffians who simply want to party. Yet, throughout the film, those labels become less and less defining as they explain their love of the music and show it with an impromptu set in the parking lot of EDC on top of their RV with the aid of a Novation touchpad. Perceptions continue to change as they emotionally recount the lessons they learned from a friend they lost to an OD whose basketball jersey they carry with them throughout the festival. Even the codger crowd can’t be cynical enough to write-off the genuine tears of joy Jose couldn’t hold in while describing how EDC is one place where he feels accepted after crowd-surfing in his wheelchair. All of these experiences culminate in a story that helps the EDC attendee nostalgically relive their own moments good and bad. The exhaustion, the descension from the stands across the tracks and onto the infield, the cool down tents, that lady waking everybody up, it all becomes real again. Yet, even with all the good vibes being tossed around, ‘Under the Electric Sky’ is not without fault.
As is well known, the biggest criticism of EDC is the drug use and the film touched on the subject a little too briefly with the medical staff at EDC and it might have been questionable judgment to play Cedric Gervais’ drug inspired, Molly, in the background. Yet, it would’ve been difficult to keep the audience involved with a cinematic version of a legal dissertation like the one written by Simon Rust Lamb, COO of Insomniac (“…artistic expression does not trigger illegal activity. Rather, illegal activity is the result of individuals making poor choices”). There were also moments of all too convenient serendipity like when Sadie came on stage to drop a track in Above & Beyond’s set or when she received immediate treatment for a medical issue at the medical tent. However predetermined these things were, it still aided in the destruction of stereotypes. Sadie was probably picked out by Insomniac prior to Above & Beyond’s set to come up and continue the set but it didn’t seem to matter any less to Sadie. Sadie did get immediate treatment but that doesn’t mean that others did not receive the same level of prompt treatment and care.
Of course the film cannot cover every aspect of the culture and history surrounding EDC and EDM. That would be more of miniseries than a feature length documentary. Maybe Ken Burns presents “Electronic Dance Music: A Retrospective History” in 2035? Somebody get that Kickstarter campaign going, stat! Even though the films lacks a proper historical perspective, that was never it's endgame. ‘Under the Electric Sky’ does accomplish its goal of bending perception of EDC concert goers into a more well-rounded view but doesn’t answer every question or problem facing EDM. It will at least enlarge your capacity for empathizing with people you might have written-off before. Cynics be damned, go see ‘Under the Electric Sky.’