October 19, 2000

Cornell Cinema

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Madonna is arguably the bright flashing trend alarm of American entertainment culture. No one seems to latch on to the next new thing with as much gusto, business savvy, and controversy as the Material Girl herself. So it was no shock when Madonna found “better living through circuitry” with her techno inspired comeback album Ray of Light. The “inspiration” of techno scored Madonna quite a hefty chunk of change, a couple of MTV trendoid awards, a few magazine covers, and the role of deliverer in the birth of mainstream techno.

The documentary, Better Living Through Circuitry, attempts to present the raw deal of what the culture and experience of techno music is and was before raves were cool and Mama Madonna was shaking it down in her gold limo.

The start of Circuitry is a kind fist, hitting the audience squarely in the gut with the vibrancy of its subject. The director, Jon Reiss, does a phenomenal job of getting the idea of techno as a full body experience, not simply a music form across to the other side of the screen. By incorporating brightly colored, geometric patterns of light and form with scenes from actual raves, Reiss plunges the viewer into depths of bass beats and drum rhythms that were not initially apparent.

Those not already acquainted with techno music learn that it serves as a vehicle to the multi-sensory experience of art and culture. The computer generations, sine wave bass tones, thousands of pulsating people, and ethereal samplings act as a conductor. These elements conduct energy from the crowd, seduced by the beat, and channel it back to the DJ, entranced by the crowd, causing a co-creative music form. Input equals output equals input.

Reiss gives techno a new depth for those who haven’t experienced the true rave scene. The message is clear that listening to Crystal Method or DJ Spooky on your discman is not the same as the experience of being pressed against a throbbing speaker the size of a small building with a crowd of 25,000 pulsating in a unified wave of movement at your back. It’s an experience of epileptic harmony.

This interactive and engaging segment of the film is unusual and mesmerizing but, unfortunately, this quality does not carry through into the rest of the documentary. Like Madonna, the filmmaker tries to play the spiritual awakening card and ends up looking a tad ridiculous and flaky.

Madonna may have sported henna tattoos in one of her techno-flavored music videos, but the DJs and fans interviewed for Circuitry sport sappy prose reminiscent of the earth mamas and papas of the sixties. It’s enough to make the Dalai Lama and Joan Biaz gag.

Their banter concerning the warm, fuzzy feelings and solidarity of the rave culture and its ability to unify the world in the name of love, peace, and happiness is not only stale, but patronizing. It’s about as believable as Madonna’s undefineable accent.

The film’s credibility only continues to dwindle as the interviewees start to bash law enforcement for raining on the rave parade. They paint the picture that the rave culture represents all that is good and innocent in the world. They claim that real ravers don’t partake in drug culture and that anyone that has died of an overdose at a rave was some rich, white, spoiled, suburban teen who was trying to be cool. Wanna-be ravers are responsible for tarnishing the reputation of the music, not true techno-philes.

The true ravers are apparently high on life. Music is the only drug they need. The cops would have somewhat of a different take on the rave scene, but they are conveniently absent from the documentary. Objectivity isn’t Circuitry’s strong suit.

Basically, this film leaves the viewer with the impression that Madonna is quite gifted at borrowing from obscure cultural phenomenons and ushering them into the spotlight of mass culture. She brings out the cheesiest side of the best of the music scene and so does Better Living Through Circuitry. It’s too bad because the film’s soundtrack is amazing and the musicians interviewed are genuinely gifted and intelligent, just slightly misrepresented. Shame on you, Mr. Reiss.

Archived article by Laura Thomas