(Canada, 87 min.)
Dir. Stacey Lee
The electronic music scene should be one of the most progressive in the world. Meshing sounds created from digital instruments and technology while infusing it with strong rhythmic elements, EDM (electronic dance music) has spurred artists to compose and produce music at home until they’re ready to DJ and take on the world. Anyone smart and inventive from any gender or sexual or racial orientation should have a shot at being a star. But the electronic scene is undeniably sexist, with only seven women out of one hundred making Billboard’s Top 100 DJs. With electronic music promoters relying on Billboard’s list for their headliners, the misogynist reality that the magazine reflects contributes to holding women back from the most important gigs in the business.
Stacey Lee’s feature doc Underplayed very effectively shows the difficulties that EDM’s top female DJs—and some who aren’t there just yet—have to deal with in their lives. Canada’s Rezz and Australia’s Alison Wonderland are big stars but remain willing to share their fears and struggles with Lee. So, too, do composers Tokimonsta and the sisters Nervo, who have achieved acclaim for their melodies without sacrificing their maverick personalities. All of Lee’s DJs are truth-tellers and from diverse backgrounds: Nightwave is Slovenian born but lives in Glasgow; Tygapaw is queer and from Brooklyn; Louisahhh is from New York but has made her success in Paris and Sherelle emerged from inner-city London to make it big at the legendary Boiler Room.
One can’t help but be fascinated by Lee’s DJs and their artistry. While the film remains focused on the struggles that these women have endured, there is plenty of room left to enjoy fairly lengthy samples of their musical accomplishments. As a documentarian, Lee has blocked out a safe space where Tygapaw can talk about being a curator at a queer club, Alison Wonderland can share her pleasure at successfully adding live instrumental playing and vocals to her performances and the Nervo sisters can let us know what it was like for both of them to have babies—and go on tour with them almost immediately.
Taking these women as examples of DJs, one is left thinking, what would it be like if 50% of Billboard’s Top 100 were women? That’s the question Lee wants you to ask, I suppose, and she’s made a doc which makes that query inevitable.
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Update: (Mar, 8, 2021): Underplayed is now available in digital release.