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‘What We Started’: a dance music film that gets it right

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New documentary film What We Started looks to be our generation’s first veritable attempt at capturing the history of dance music in its entirety. It’s an ambitious undertaking, especially considering the traditional portrayal of dance music in Hollywood, which, more often than not, appears out-of-touch or overtly contrived.

Fortunately, What We Started is not one of those films. Where Bert Marcus’s new documentary succeeds is in its ability to present the paralleling narratives of the underground and the mainstream in tandem. In an industry which frequently finds these forces at odds — usually for no better reason than egos and elitism — What We Started reconciles these communities, finding both common ground and a path forward.

The film is primarily centered around two artists: Carl Cox and Martin Garrix. Both figures serve as flag bearers of sorts for the two sides of the industry. Carl, of course, represents the old guard, born and bred on turntables, house music, and decade-long club residencies. Garrix, on the other hand, is the youthful face of dance music’s commercial wave, EDM, having surmounted the scene in meteoric fashion and epitomizing the modern landscape of DJ stardom.

Where the film is at its best is in its biopic moments of Cox. The documentary large touches on Carl’s troubled relationship with his father, providing unexpected moments of poignancy that lend a deeper authenticity to the film. Coupled with Carl’s infectious outlook on the scene, What We Started finds the perfect protagonist in Cox.

While purists may bemoan the attention on the commercial aspects of the industry, to neglect either side of the scene would be both disingenuous and incomplete. As such, the film alternates between both Garrix and Cox’s personal narratives, while simultaneously tracing the extensive history of dance music from its roots in disco all the way to ‘90s field raves, Olympic stadiums, and its current festival-dominated identity. All the while, the film features narration from seminal figures like Richie Hawtin, Paul Oakenfold, Moby, Sasha, and Pete Tong.

In pulling from a large variety of voices, including more polarizing figures like Seth Troxler and Afrojack, What We Started ultimately provides one of the more comprehensive portrayals of electronic music to date. In a media space that traditionally caters to either the under or over-ground exclusively, it’s a refreshing feat to say the least.

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