If you’ve got some time on your hands, there’s a wealth of good quality documentaries about dance music and DJ culture available. From rave to garage, techno to jungle, we take a look at some of the most interesting.

Pump Up The Volume: A History of House Music

It’s nearly twenty years old, but 2001’s ‘Pump…’ is still a good introduction to the history of house music. At nearly two and a half hours long, it takes its starting point at the end of the disco era with Larry Levan at the Paradise Garage. Acknowledging the roots of current club culture in the gay, black and brown urban communities of Chicago and Detroit, the documentary is made up of interviews with club owners, DJs, producers, artists and contemporary footage and of course, lots of music. ‘Pump…’ covers the period from the decadence of late 70s disco through to the opulence and optimism of UK Garage at the end of the 90s and serves as a great introduction to the roots of house music and the evolution of club DJing.

Everybody In The Place – An Incomplete History of Britain 1984 – 1992

Turner Prize-winning artist Jeremy Deller’s documentary takes the form of him delivering a lesson to a class of young students in a seminar room. He discusses the emergence of acid house in the UK in the context of its roots in LGBTQ communities in the US but also considering the UK politics of the time: Thatcher, the Miners Strike, Travellers and Sound Systems. Aside from the classroom scenes, ‘Everybody…’ is made up of unfamiliar footage, often played for a minute or two, interspersed with the reactions of the class. Its pace, style and focus make for a unique and compelling take on the history of house in the UK, and a very different version to the orthodox, linear telling of the story.

Tower Block Dreams: Ghetto On Sea

Ever wondered where the DJs Beats and Decoy on BBC TV’s excellent ‘People Just Do Nothing‘ came from? Part funny, part tragic, ‘Tower Block Dreams’ follows a UK Garage pirate radio boss and his gang of mates, MCs, DJs and clubbers as they dodge the DTI, run into trouble with rival pirates and try to put on a rave. ‘People Just Do Nothing’ sitcom took a lot from this documentary including the names Beats and Decoy, as well as the quiet pathos that comes from the big dreams of the small-time pirate.

Modulations: Cinema For The Ear

Lara Lee’s 1998 documentary on the history of electronic music starts from the premise that splitting the atom in 1938 was a crucial cultural moment as well as a scientific moment. If we could split the atom, then we could split anything – including music – leading to revolutionary creative techniques that broadened exactly what music could be, ultimately resulting in techno, house, drum & bass and the rest of contemporary electronic music. ‘Modulations’ covers avant-garde composers, musique concrète, disco, electro, acid house, Detroit techno, jungle, psychedelics, turntablism and lots of points in between, via plenty of rave and studio footage along with artist interviews.

Modern Times – LTJ Bukem/Good Looking Documentary

This 1997 BBC documentary about drum & bass DJ and producer LTJ Bukem follows him as he travels around the US on tour without a work visa. Taking place in the late 90s when Bukem’s smooth drum & bass sound was very much in the ascendant, he’s accompanied by various members of the Good Looking crew and their bulldog of a manager Tony Fordham. Bukem is the star DJ but Fordham is the star of the documentary. He’s a down-to-earth, geezer of a manager, old beyond his years, who ambles through the film trying to get his shirts ironed by hotel staff who don’t understand English. He delivers many great lines; when asked for the reasons why he wouldn’t discuss Bukem’s album project, he memorably responds: “We’re not prepared to discuss what we are and aren’t doing with his album because we are very, very secretive about it”.

A Short Film About Chilling

‘A Short Film About Chilling’ was a forty minute Channel 4 documentary about the 1990 summer season in Ibiza. It’s a joyous little slice of Balearic history, a visual time capsule of an Ibiza that was just about to be discovered en masse by the emerging house-generation. Featuring appearances from fresh-faced characters like Terry Farley, A Man Called Adam, Graham Massey from 808 State, promoter Charlie Chester and UK band The Farm, Ibiza 90 has plenty of beachfront and poolside discussion about Balearic beats and Belgian new beat, lots of contemporary club footage and many very happy people.

Paris Is Burning

‘Paris Is Burning’ is another documentary that like ‘A Short Film About Chilling’ captures a very specific moment in time. In this case, it’s the Manhattan LGBTQ ballroom scene of the mid-to-late-eighties. ‘Paris…’ is about the vogue battles of the black and Hispanic gay men, drag queens and trans women of New Yorks ballrooms. It’s an unforgettable story of drag culture, filled with characters who stay with you long after the film’s finished. It’s funny, heart-warming and occasionally truly tragic. If you don’t know about shade, vogue, reading, mothers, the true meaning of ‘legendary’ and the House of Pendavis or House of Extravaganza, this is where you start.

Lola Da Musica – Gabber Documentary

A good music documentary can give you an insight into a world you know nothing about and can hold your attention even if you don’t understand the genre. Gabba is often seen as an extreme and outlying musical backwater. This Dutch TV documentary, available on YouTube with English subtitles (which occasionally get it wrong – at one point a producer tweaks a ‘swish’ EQ rather than a sweep), lifts the lid on the hyper tempos and distorted kicks of gabber. Like most niche and extreme scenes, gabber’s adherents are truly dedicated to their music and the club experience that goes with it, as this film clearly shows.

Rewind 4Ever: The History of UK Garage

‘Rewind 4Ever’ is a 2013 documentary from Boiler Room tracing the history of UK Garage. The film is made up of interviews with all the main players in UKG including Karl ‘Tuff Enuff’ Brown, Norris ‘Da Boss’ Windross, MC Creed, Matt ‘Jam’ Lamont, Scott Garcia and many more. The viewer is taken through the early days of the scene when it was based almost exclusively on US house, through the evolution of the UKG sound, to Two-Step and the foundations of Dubstep.

The club footage from the heyday of UKG is a reminder of just how big garage was, and just how much fun the scene was too.

Drum & Bass: The Movement

‘Drum & Bass: The Movement’ is a documentary from Drum & Bass Arena released last month that aims to capture the ‘specific and intense slice of drum & bass culture’s rapid acceleration from 1996 – 2016’. The film paints a picture of a culture operating on fast forward, with constant new developments in the sound driving producers to create fresh styles and variations seemingly every week. Inevitably, with the ‘history of’ format, there are opinions on who or shouldn’t be included and the absence of Bryan G’s V Recordings for example was noted by the drum & bass community. Nevertheless, ‘Drum & Bass: The Movement’ is still a decent documentary for newcomers and old heads alike and is full of interviews with key producers and DJs along with a seriously heavy-weight soundtrack.

Main photo David Pareja.

26th June, 2020

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