There is an absurdly vast selection of music movies and documentaries available on Netflix, Hulu, HBO Go, and on and on and on. But it’s hard to tell which ones are actually worth your 100 minutes. Watch the Tunes will help you pick what music doc is worth your Netflix and Chill time every weekend. This week’s edition covers I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead: The Loud Life of Steve Aoki, which is streaming over on Netflix starting today.
We all know that EDM is the music of our modern times, man. More kids go to EDM shows than buy albums. More kids go to EDM shows than will vote in the presidential election this fall. It’s maybe the biggest story—genre-wise—in music this century. We went from a culture that showed out to see Top 40 Bands perform live in our biggest venues to being a culture that shows up to see a guy turn some knobs and stare into the digital abyss of his computer —in that way, being more like all of us than any other type of performer-- in our biggest venues.
That said, there hasn’t been the kind of canonization of EDM that you need for the genre to become what we pass down to the teens of 2030. Part of that is because EDM is a music that is best felt IRL, not on Spotify, and YouTube videos can only do so much to transfer why an event/DJ/group was important. The other part is that most smart chroniclers of the genre are just trying to keep up with figuring out who’s making the most money.
I would say that the brand new documentary—it’s on Netflix, as of today—I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead: The Loud Life of Steve Aoki is maybe the first true movie chronicle of the EDM boom, except that Aoki is a more interesting figure than most of the dudes wearing weird headgear and playing Vegas for six figure guarantees. He’s the son of the dude who started Benihana. He started Dim Mak and signed bands like Klaxons, Bloc Party, and the Kills before they were famous. He ran one of the first modern dance nights in L.A., and was one of the first people paying the Ed Banger clique—including Justice—to play in America. His story is, I imagine, several orders more unreal than anything Deadmau5 can muster for a biography. So I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead--which at times has aspirations to place Aoki in the history of EDM and explain to outsiders how important he is to it--ends up being a mostly rote portrait of one of the most famous people on the Internet.
The parts where I’ll Sleep ascends beyond a routine character portrait are in detailing the insane set of daddy issues manifest in Aoki. His dad, “Rocky” Aoki, was an Olympic wrestler who started Benihana to bring Japanese cuisine to Americans whose only experience with Japanese culture was through World War II. Rocky spent his considerable fortune doing increasingly batshit crazy things, from trying to float a hot air balloon from Japan to L.A. without any balloon training, to starting a softcore porn magazine to trying to set speed records in offshore powerboat racing. He did all of this at the expense of his seven kids, none of whom felt like they had a relationship with him, especially Steve, who grew up in California across the country from his New York-dwelling dad.
The scenes of Rocky’s crazy schemes are easy to draw parallels to Steve’s attempts to turn his EDM shows into spectacles with smoke cannons, cakes, and rafts in the moshpit. The central theme of I’ll Sleep might as well be trying to get your father’s approval, as Aoki talks repeatedly of trying to live up to his dad’s standards and make him proud.
Those moments give the movie its emotional core, but most of the film is devoted to the EDM boom, and Aoki’s role in it. Aoki probably plays more shows than most—there’s a segment devoted to humblebragging about the amount of shows he plays in a single 3 day span-- but his role in popularizing EDM is probably overplayed here; the fact that Skrillex or Aviici or any other number of DJs isn’t interviewed about Aoki’s importance to the genre speaks volumes. There is a light toe-tread into the widespread criticism of Aoki in EDM circles—that his music is like the McDonald’s of EDM, and that he’s mostly performing by pressing play on an iPod—but mostly we learn that Aoki has had a charmed life as music label head and now a touring DJ.
Where I’ll Sleepfalls apart is explaining why Aoki is huge, or why EDM is such a big deal. We don’t hear from his fans that Aoki is a great live performance, we hear that from his friend Diplo. We don’t hear what it was like for EDM fans in Kuala Lampur for Aoki to be the first performer to play there, we hear from his manager. I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead is great at explaining who Aoki is for the Netflix watchers who will give this a spin, but I’m less sure of the why than I was before I watched it. And that’s never good for a music documentary.