The world of a DJ is the world of imagination. Blending sounds to get the right beat, hitting the right pitch, and driving the crowd into a frenzy. As a twentysomething in the early 90s, I lived the life in Toronto’s warehouse scene. A friend who was DJ got me into the best after-hours parties where you would find me dancing until the morning. Honestly, through my time in the club scene, I can count the number of female DJs on one hand. I never knew of the struggle women had trying to make in the DJ world and Underplayed documents women pioneers in the electronic music industry from the early days to now.
Directed by Stacey Lee, this in-depth documentary looks at how women have risen to take up space in the male-dominated music production world. She shows the women who pioneered and heavily influenced electronic music like Suzanne Ciani, specializing in sound effects, Clara Rockmore, a Theramin virtuosa back in the 30s onward, and Wendy Carlos, who scored two of Stanley Kubrick’s more influential films, A Clockwork Orange and The Shining. We also see the women who have come up despite the dismal statistics of female representation in the DJ world. With only five women included in the top 100 DJ list in 2019, these female DJs chronicle their rise while navigating sexism, trolling, motherhood between the decks, and mental and physical health issues due to the isolation of often being the only woman in the room.
Full disclosure: I had dreams of becoming a DJ. While I was dancing up a storm in abandoned warehouses, I often saw myself behind the turntable, controlling a room’s mood, orchestrating the energy levels like a maestro of human emotions. I could tell a good drop mix and a fade a mile away, but I thought it was a boys club and never pursued it. My music of choice was drum and bass and ragga jungle. Nothing could get my fist-pumping like the speed of breakbeats, feeling the bass in my gut.
I liked the mystery of the person standing above the crowd, concentrating on sounds to make people happy. And you see this in each DJ interviewed in Underplayed: Canadian dynamo Rezz who has her own fan club called the “Cult of Rezz,” New York-based Tygapaw who created a safe space for queer Caribbean folk, and Alison Wonderland, who decided to put an all-female live band together for her tour. My favorite was Sherelle, who rinsed out the drum and bass beats and got me cheering and incidentally looking for her set online and forgetting everything on my to-do list. It was incredible to see her go viral after playing the Boiler Room, a venue in the U.K that has become a badge of honor for the modern DJ, and I now have to seek out more of her sets.
Underplayed was my most anticipated documentary of TIFF 2020, and it didn’t disappoint. For women who love to create music, to play it for an audience, representation is everything. Patriarchy dictates how women should look, what they should do, and how they should express themselves, and it’s high time this policing is broken. This documentary is a lesson in sticking to your guns and doing what you love for anyone who has a dream, DJs, or otherwise. For these women, it was a difficult choice, but one they clearly will never regret
Toronto International Film Festival: Sep 10-20, 2020.