TIFF Review: 'Underplayed' Highlights EDM's Diversity Problem — and Shows Why It's So Important to Fix It Directed by Stacey Lee

Starring Rezz, Alison Wonderland, Tygapaw, Sherelle, TOKiMONSTA, Mark Ronson
TIFF Review: 'Underplayed' Highlights EDM's Diversity Problem — and Shows Why It's So Important to Fix It Directed by Stacey Lee
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"You can't be what you can't see," says Alison Wonderland in Underplayed, a documentary about the dearth of gender, sexual, and ethnic representation in electronic music. And so the doc shows us all.

Filmed through a deeply intersectional feminist lens, Underplayed highlights not just the genre's shortcomings when it comes to representation, but also how the industry can do better. A remarkable feat of equitable representation, Underplayed, in its 88-minute runtime, manages to show us the beautiful, diverse and talented multitude of people making electronic music — their history, and their hopeful future. The documentary is beau idéal when it comes to critiquing and representation all at once. 

Underplayed is the feature debut of New Zealand-born director Stacey Lee, who has been shortlisted for the Cannes Young Directors Award. The film is punctuated by stunning and delicate cinematography done by Zoe Simone Yi — but of course the star of the show is the music, and the people making it. Though it looks at the broader issue of men's domination of electronic music and women's relegation to the parentheses (in 2019, five of the top DJs in the world were women and less than three per cent of the technical and production roles in the music industry are filled by women; the number shrinks further when it comes to women of colour), threaded throughout are the particular stories of a handful of women as they follow their dreams: Rezz, Alison Wonderland, TOKiMONSTA, Nervo, Sherelle, Nightwave, Tygapaw and Louisahhh.

But that's not all. The film also grounds electronic music in its historical context, full of pioneers such as Delia Derbyshire and Daphne Oram. Underplayed is full of crucial information that we all ought to know, but that most have historically neglected or taken for granted. While educating us, the documentary also makes it a point to let the women tell their own stories, which aren't always diamond-studded. Alison Wonderland and Rezz talk about their mental health issues that intensified as they toured, while Tygapaw talks about being a Jamaican immigrant, issues surrounding femininity and her complications of it, Grace Jones, queerness and identity, and how she still faces financial challenges. TOKiMONSTA talks about how moyamoya disease almost took away her ability to create music, and how she had to relearn her passion and career.  

All the artists in Underplayed talk about how they offer something to the genre of electronic music that is not just uniquely their own, from a perspective that is much needed, but also something that audiences want to hear. The film and the artists aren't patronizing toward audiences, which is refreshing — they know that we are not just mindless consumers, we are active listeners. The film does an excellent job of showing the diversity amongst audiences at Rezz's and Alison Wonderland's shows, and how crucial a part music plays in people's lives.

Ultimately, the film isn't about usurpation — women have never wanted to be men because we have our own voice. What Underplayed underscores is the need to give diverse voices (of which there are plenty) the stage that will allow them to showcase their art, which in turn will create a fairer world, at least in terms of art. When it comes to something as visceral as music, the film says, we are doing ourselves a great disservice by only letting men dominate the mainstream. Audiences need to see the stories of creators like Tygapaw and Sherelle coaxing beautiful emotion out of machines, their hardships and their triumphs, and this is why Underplayed is so important and instructional. Go see this film, you might see yourself in it. (Popp Rok)