It Turns Out that the Steve Aoki Documentary is a Film About Dad Issues
Whenever Aoki throws a cake in somebody's face...who is he really throwing the cake at?
I'll Sleep When I'm DeadMidtown 120 Blues
, an 81 minute documentary focused on pioneering EDM DJ, Steve Aoki, feels like it's arrived slightly too late to capture the zeitgeist. For a while, many people who take dance music very seriously were upset with Aoki, a second generation Japanese-American superstar with a huge international following. Notorious for playing compressed electro bangers on huge stages, records that make a Crookers set sound like DJ Sprinkles' in comparison, he's both beloved and bemoaned for his bizarre penchant for throwing whole cakes at his braying crowd.
Now that the EDM bubble has at least partially burst, with the scene either dissipating, dying or possibly evolving, the bile directed towards Aoki seems pointless in retrospect; as if Mogwai were suddenly at war with Dragonforce for playing too fast and making guitar music look silly. Sure, the components—a sound system, two record players and a mixer—are the same as any other DJ set, but Aoki and his cohorts continue to operate in a sphere so ridiculous, so removed from dance music's beating, soulful heart, that his approach is simply incomparable. Nonetheless, it's important to know your enemy, so those still morbidly fascinated with Aoki should add I'll Sleep When I'm Dead to their watch list.
The opening coda, a five minute montage of Aoki's most outrageous stage antics set to booming classical music, will do little to convince that ever present threat, 'the haters', but before long, we're visiting Aoki's high school, where he recalls his school years as one of the few Asian faces in the class, a position he unfortunately still maintains in the world of EDM, and the natural loneliness and unfortunate bullying as a result. Then, in present day New York, Aoki announces his debut album, a Stadium Arcadium-esque double entitled Neon Future, and a date at the city's legendary, enormous Madison Square Gardens to celebrate. The show will mark the first time a DJ has headlined the venue alone.
The only problem is, our Steve cannot stop touring, jetting constantly around the world on his Aoki branded private jet, conquering the EDM scene across Europe, the USA and Asia in a state of permanent exhaustion. Most of the narrative tension emerges when Aoki has missed his target date for the record, and been chronically outbid on his MSG show. How will he make it up to his fans? How will he live with himself? Will he get the deposit back from the bakers before they begin the inevitable process of creating a stadium size tart? (Disappointingly, the international and internal logistics of sourcing good quality cakes are not touched upon.)
Most notably among several siblings, Steve is the brother of supermodel Devon Aoki, who pops up throughout to offer reassurance of just how much this all means to him, but more interesting is his father, Hiroaki 'Rocky' Aoki, founder of the popular restaurant chain Benihana, but also a wildly successful pro-Wrestler, speedboat racer, pornographer, philanderer and a pioneering one-man brand. In one sequence of archive footage, Rocky skilfully lands a hot air balloon that has frozen in the stratosphere, just one instance of him casually avoiding certain death, not to mention a phenomenally bad-ass move that anyone's child would struggle to escape the shadow of. Aoki is of course trying nonetheless.
Unfortunately, the documentary rather sidesteps the universally relatable angle of dad issues, but leaves just enough dangling for sofa psychologists to feast on. In one telling and somewhat lamentable archive interview, Hiroaki Aoki divulges to a reporter that 'family' follows business and sport as his third priority. In another, a friend of Aoki tells us how he can't stand to be alone, preferring somebody to stay up shooting the breeze with him in hotel rooms, until he falls asleep. In Judd Apatow's Funny People, a fictional satire of stand up comedy, Adam Sandler's fantastically rich yet hopelessly unfulfilled comic George Simmons is afflicted with the same character detail.
While it's easy to find Aoki's on-stage antics and musical ideas either distasteful, or just plain lame, it must be said that he doesn't seem hopelessly unfulfilled. Yes, the documentary is more of an on-brand celebration than a searing exposé of ego and excess, but Aoki comes across as a genuinely sincere chap. One illuminating segment recalls Aoki's shift towards a genuine punk rock lifestyle in the early noughties, prior to the death of Rocky Aoki in 2008. Setting up Dim Mak records and giving huge breaks to the likes of Bloc Party and The Kills, Aoki was also a vegan, with a degree in Women's Studies, then the most 'radical' major on campus. Tellingly, Aoki's father was unimpressed by his son's gentle virtue.
Like any other successful DJ, Aoki is a crowd pleaser at heart, albeit one who thinks in a widescreen, Michael Bay format. The footage of him headlining Tomorrowland festival for the third year in a row, disciples stretching off into the gurning distance, is quite phenomenal. Aoki is playing terrible, terrible records, but it's easy to imagine how a following of such magnitude, the 'special relationship' with his fans, is utterly addictive. The documentary probes Aoki as to how much further he can take such showboating, and he acknowledges that at this stage in his career, "He has caked over 1500 people." Yet his fans want more, and he just can't stop. He takes a refreshingly laissez-faire approach to his lapsed fans turned haters, although will.i.am is on hand to take said naysayers to task, teasing us with the blissful possibility that The Black Eyed Peas might never have produced hits like "Let's Get It Started" if he had listened to his.
The documentary has a glossy, upbeat appeal that lures you comfortably into Aoki's high energy world. Yet frustratingly, all of the major tension, missed deadlines and professional quandaries are presented as bafflingly old-school title cards, filling us in prior to a series of vaguely concerned conversations between Aoki and his manager. There's nothing akin to the intense therapy sequences in Metallica's genre defining Some Kind of Monster, or anything as excruciating as pretty much the entire duration of this year's bar setting political doc, Weiner. Aoki resolves his professional issues with relative ease, and the film concludes with the the LA police department closing down an entire, recently regenerated area of the city for a neon soaked street party. "Shutting down the streets, this is punk rock!", declares Aoki, either oblivious to or simply sidestepping the irony of a rave literally organised by the mayor. Later, joined by his beaming family, Aoki concludes that his father would have recognised his son's achievements, but wisely reserves the sweetest plaudits for his supportive mother, who looks to be having a banging and baffling night out herself.
Whereas colleagues such as Diplo, the smartest talking head contributor here, have undeniably helped reinvent pop music, Aoki has instead spent years driven simply by the singular sugar rush of becoming as outrageous, and as outrageously popular as humanly possible. Yet beneath his over-compressed, farting electro aesthetic lies a clearly sensitive if ruthlessly ambitious creative soul. It's a shame that Aoki turned his back on his academic pursuits alongside his truly punk impetus. He could have been the entry level, woke EDM bro for dance music's new, socially conscious generation. I'll Sleep When I'm Dead reaches an awkward conclusion. It reminds us that anything is possible if you put your heart and mind to it, but doesn't let us forget that that they fuck you up, your mum and dad.