Better's not better

A new electronic-music documentary clears the dance floor

Electronic music may have survived the great hype of 1997, but the aftershocks still echo through the halls of the pop industrial complex. Now, the music is healthier than ever, in no small part because of the fact that the majors have realized there is no quick buck to be made here. Unfortunately, the documentary Better Living Through Chemistry--A Digital Odyssey Into Electronic Dance Culture (slated for art-house release May 26) was filmed and produced within that dated time frame. Not only that, but it was directed by a man, Jon Reiss, who admits that, before filming began, he neither knew nor liked much e-music. Nevertheless, the slick, 85-minute documentary comes wrapped in the kind of anti-media self-righteousness and pro-scene boosterism that smells of a beverage-company marketing plan. What's more, the real point behind this not-so-artfully-titled promotional vehicle (didn't Mr. Electronica, Fatboy Slim, produce an album with a similar name?) might just be to sell records.

The film's we're-down-with-the-underground veneer and pro-dance-industry cheer wouldn't seem so disingenuous if this artifact had a coherent point, some kind of narrative framework, or at least a documentary-as-art technical breakthrough. But in Better Living, historical facts are well worn, there is no narrative flow, and a theme is nowhere in sight. Instead, it relies heavily on the talents of Genesis P. Orridge, the former Throbbing Gristle leader who also helped guide director Iara Lee's pioneering 1998 e-music documentary Modulations. It leans the rest of its weight on diverse on-scene interviews with candy-crazed ravers who come up with breakthrough sound bites like: "You just can't love everybody." The film's promoters are spinning it as a technical breakthrough, a digital enterprise from start to finish. Of course, Modulations did much of the same, more than two years earlier and pre-iMac. So there.

In no way does Better Living beat Lee's poetic, edgy, and intellectually challenging flick as the undisputed celluloid champion of the e-music phenomenon. Her film not only presented original historical research, but it also provided her own framework for the evolution of e-culture (tracing it back to the disintegrating effects of post-bomb America) while presenting a narrative that took us from day one to drum 'n' bass. Because its director is an outsider, Better Living is transparently dependent on those 150 hours of interviews with ravers, artists, and scene shakers. Though the groove is more important than the voice in electronic music, Reiss' film seems to believe the exact opposite. In fact, it never finds the groove at all. The result is pure blah-blah-blah, the Cliffs Notes version of Bartlett's Book of Quotations.

Even more fishy is the producers' self-proclaimed six-figure cost, not to mention their willingness to plead in front of an industry audience at last year's Resfest (the annual digital film festival in Hollywood) for a decent distribution deal (which they later received from 7th Art Releasing). But, hey, they're keepin' it real: Rave organizers in secondary markets will get a shot at screening the film--for a fee--the producers said. Rave promoters might want to charge the producers, however, because in some sections, Better Living begins to smell like an infomercial. All that's missing is a stilted host in a Cosby sweater espousing the virtues of electronic music.

The film spotlights lengthy interviews with artists from the Hollywood-based Moonshine Music label and its prodigal but independent friend City of Angels. Both labels once had artists that were bright stars in their own rights. But many of the now-lackluster artists that Moonshine was pushing three years ago, when the documentary was shot, appear prominently in the film, including DJ Keoki and Electric Skychurch (who are no longer with the label). Recent City of Angels stars Crystal Method, Uberzone's "Q," and DJ Simply Jeff also play roles.

But the preponderance of these labels doesn't do much for the credibility of this documentary. The real kicker here is that Moonshine has released the soundtrack to Better Living and--no surprise here--it includes tracks from Keoki, Electric Skychurch, Crystal Method, and Uberzone, among others. To be fair, we contacted the film's co-producer Brian McNelis, general manager of the Cleopatra record label--a mini-Moonshine of sorts--who said the film highlights more than 30 artists in all, a vast majority being unattached to either Moonshine or City of Angels. He also pointed out that Electric Skychurch had already parted ways with Moonshine at the time of filming. "Cleopatra gave me a budget to begin production," he says. "I self-financed the rest. This production was really a labor of love for me. I actually lost a lot of money making the film."

Even without this question of credibility, though, Better Living feels like a techno-fueled ad designed to get kids jumping onto the e-music bandwagon and logging on to the buy-it-now mentality of the very mainstream media industry it purports to criticize. It is an artifact of Next Big Thing-ism that's better left in the '90s. A cut-and-paste of talking heads doesn't do this decade-plus cultural phenomenon justice. After all, e-music culture has now arguably endured planet earth contiguously longer than punk (not counting the Seattle revival), ska (not counting the Orange County revival), and disco (not counting the early-'90s revival)--and yet intelligent insights on rave culture remain relatively few and far between. With Better Living, the viewer gets the feeling that the filmmakers haven't got a clue what the e-music revolution really means.

 
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