More than any other genre of music, dance music is obsessed with its own heritage. Despite having existed for a shorter period of time than most other strains of contemporary music, house and techno (and everything in between) propel themselves forward by recycling their history.
From revivals of old sounds, to promoters putting on parties in warehouses in hope of capturing a by-gone aesthetic, to the rapturous reception a well-placed ‘classic’ track will receive when played in a set, retrospection is deeply engrained within dance-music culture.
And amidst the heady fog of crass nostalgia and cash-ins, it is all too easy to perceive dance-music history in terms of the enshrined mythology that it is often presented, rather than how it really was.
From legendary NYC loft parties to acid house raves in ‘89 to the early days at DC-10, it is often difficult to distinguish the rose-tinted memories from reality.
Yet, dance music’s obsession with history (and the increasingly cheap cost of movie cameras) has a redeeming attribute, an attribute that somewhat redresses the self-indulgent mythologies of clubland: documentaries.
From bedroom produced cut-and-paste jobs uploaded to Youtube to professionally filmed feature-length films available on DVD, the breadth and width of documentaries on dance-music’s illustrious history is astonishing. As such, come take a wander down memory lane with I Voice as we present ten of the best of dance-music documentaries ever made.
01. Pump Up The Volume
Possibly the most definitive documentary on house and techno music, Pump Up The Volume traces the sound’s roots in the USA and the subsequent adoption of acid house and techno in late Thatcherite Britain, all the way through to the mass commercialisation of the sound at the end of the ‘90s. With in-depth interviews with everyone from Ron Hardy to Pete Tong to Frankie Knuckles (including a fantastic moment where Derrick May explains how he composed Strings Of Life), it is unlikely that you will hear the history of dance-music elucidated as neatly, vividly and truthfully anywhere else.
Director: Carl Hindmarch
What do the closed NYC clubs Tunnel, Palladium and The Limelight all have in common? They were all owned and ran by notorious nightclub owner Peter Gatien, the eye-patching sporting Canadian entrepreneur. And whilst all three were renowned as offerings some of the best spots for house and techno in early ‘90s New York, it was Limelight that was known for being the most demented. Situated in a disused church in Manhattan, the club’s had a reputation for sexual debauchery, narcotic decadence, industrial techno and a celebrity clientele. In this startling honest documentary Billy Corben charts the club’s ascent as the brainchild of Peter Gatien to being the highest profile victim of Mayor Giulliani’s city wide clean up. With everyone from Moby to, er, 50 Cent talking about how this place make an impact on their artistic career, it’s a documentary that celebrates how one building can transcend far beyond its four walls.
Director: Billy Corben
03.High Tech Soul
To describe yourself as the ‘first documentary to tackle to the deep roots of techno music’ is quite the statement, but Gary Bredow’s 2006 Detroit orientated feature-length film looks to have achieved exactly that. Featuring in-depth interviews with the obvious candidates (Carl Craig, Richie Hawtin, Juan Atkins) and perhaps less obvious ones (Anthony Shakir, Matthew Dear, author Dan Sicko), High Tech Soul looks at the origin of the sound through the social prism of the city that birthed it. Posing the suggestion that techno could not have come from any other city, High Tech Soul expounds how Detroit’s industrial past provided the blueprints for the globally-adopted techno sound and warehouse parties of the ‘90s.
Director: Gary Bredow
04.When I Sold My Soul To The Machine
The Hague in the Netherlands has long shared an intimate affinity with techno that, unlike Berlin or Detroit, has often gone unnoticed beyond its geographical boundaries. As such, it is rather fitting that this documentary that explores the sounds of the city, has itself proven to be something of a sleeper hit, gaining cult success in the last few years. Pivoting around the techno scene that rose up around Guy Tavares’ Bunker Records, the documentary features interviews with well-known idiosyncratic producers such as I-f and Legowelt, as well as lesser-known local heroes such DJ Technician and Pamétex. Shot against the backdrop of The Hague, capturing the town, its people and clubs, it’s a resounding documentation of how an ordinary little city can quietly become one of the most creative dance-music hubs in the world.
Directors: Igor Lesic, Ronald Lindgreen
05.High On Hope
In 1987 a subsection of despondent British youth cultural began to host acid house raves in illegal spaces around the UK. In 1994, with raves now occurring up and down the UK on a weekly basis, the Conservative government passed the Criminal Justice Bill giving police the powers to shut down these parties, effectively curtailing all unauthorised parties. Sixteen years later, Piers Sanderson revisited the places and people who played an active part in this social phenomenon. Utilising archive media footage and ingenious graphics, and unafraid to look at the implicit political connotations behind house and rave music, High On Hope presents a very relevant exposé of a period of dance music very much dislocated behind from today’ s world of house and techno.
Director: Piers Sanderson
06.A Short Film About Chilling
Punning on the title of Kieslowski’s cult ‘80s movie, Cameron’s half-hour film is arguably the first documentary about the Balearic club culture that began to bloom in Ibiza during the late ‘80s. Capturing the island before the superclub monopolies took over, before VIP table service clogged up the floor space, and way before MTV and Swedish House Mafia dominated San Antonio billboards, this short documentary presents the White Isle in all its early glory. And whilst the interviews with trailblazing DJ Terry Farley and vintage footage of The Farm performing in Privilege are fascinating, it’s the on location interviews with the first wave of Ibizan clubbers that offer the most revelations about dance music on Ibiza’s earliest days.
Director: Angus Cameron
07.Part Of The Weekend Never Dies
For a long time, dance music didn’t do ‘concert documentaries’. Probably because it wouldn’t be particularly entertaining to watch a bloke behind two deck, fiddling about with equalizers and rifling through record boxes. But with the advent of the electro-indie crossover boom in the ‘00s, a number of bands and documentaries seemed to explode at once. From Justice’s Across The Universe to LCD Soundsystem’s recent Shut Up And Play The Hits, the dance-music concert documentary is now a well-established phonemona. And Part Of The Weekend Never Dies is inarguably the most iconic of them all. Capturing the highlights of Soulwax’s epic 120-date tour back in 2007, it’s an unrelenting sprint through blistering electro club sets, rambunctious backstage japes and doleful comedown blues with a cast that numbers everyone from Erol Alkan to Busy P.
Director: Saam Farahmand
08.Speaking In Code
Intertwining the trials and tribulations faced by eleven different dance-music producers and DJs, Amy Grill’s debut documentary exposes the hard realities and home truths that lurk behind the glossy-sheen of success. Following the then relatively unknown Modeselektor, as well as Monoloke, Tobias Thomas and The Wighomy Brothers amongst others, the documentary offers emotionally-raw footage of the hard graft involved with not only carving an artistic reputation but also enough of a living to subside on. Spread across eleven cities and two continents, and spanning everything from the emergence of web journalism to the birth of Ableton, Speaking In Code is a painfully honest look at the realities behind the dance music industry.
Director/Producer: Amy Grill
Many clubs can claim to be icons of dance music, but very few actually are. Tresor is one of the few genuine articles. To the uninitiated Tresor is a (literal) underground nightclub in Berlin. To those in the know, it’s one of the longest standing outposts of European techno culture. Filmed in the renovated power plant on Köpenicker Strasse that the club relocated to in 2007, SubBerlin retells the club’s history from opening its doors in 1991 to being made homeless by the city council in 2005 to the grand re-opening of the club in its new home. Told by the players who were there the first time around, that’s everyone from Sven Vath to Jeff Mills to Dimitri Hegemann, this is an insightful celebration of one of dance-music’s most authentic underground institutions.
Director: Tilmann Künzel
10.Paris Is Burning
Released when the 1980s were dead, but still so recent that you could still feel the pulse of yuppie culture and shell suits fashion, Jennie Livingston’s celebration of the debauched beauty of New York’s gay and disco scene has long been considered one of the most authoritative snapshot of its time. Focusing on the infamous Ball competitions that took place in discos up and down the length of Manhattan, the film is a documentation of transgender and drag-queens strutting their stuff to the strains of Marshall Jefferson, Barbara Mason and MFSB. Whilst house and disco might no longer resemble the homoerotic decadence and drag of its early days, Livingston’s graceful depiction of the social and cultural groundings to the sound provide an enduring slice of dance music heritage.
Director: Jennie Livingston