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VOD Review: Underplayed

April 6, 2021

By John Corrado

★★½ (out of 4)

Women make up less than three percent of all technical and production roles in the music industry, and in 2019, only five out of the top one hundred DJs were women.

These are some of the surprising stats presented to us in director Stacey Lee’s documentary Underplayed, which aims to address the issue of women not being included in the Electronic Dance Music scene. Shot by a crew of mostly women during the 2019 summer festival season, the film introduces us to a selection of female EDM artists.

Front and centre among the subjects is Rezz, a self-taught producer from Niagara Falls, Canada who spent two years in her parents’ unfinished basement working on music and developing her own sound, and became the first female headliner at the Bud Light Dreams Festival in 2019.

Some of the other subjects include Tygapaw, an underground DJ and music producer in New York who, as a Black queer woman from Jamaica, is at even more of a disadvantage in the predominantly white and male world of EDM; Alison Wonderland, the top female headliner for Coachella, who mixes strings and vocals into her techno sound; the Grammy-nominated Tokimonsta; and the Australian duo Nervo.

The film explores the challenges they face in this male-dominated world, from being trolled in the comments section during live-streams and facing sexual harassment at night clubs, to simply not being given the same opportunities or festival slots as their male counterparts. A Live Nation representative explains in the film that they need to book already established artists in order to sell tickets, but it’s a vicious cycle, because without these gigs, it’s hard to get known.

The film delivers some of its most interesting moments when exploring the legacy of the many female artists who were early adopters of this technology, including electronic music pioneer Suzanne Ciani and Prince’s former engineer Susan Rogers, who are both featured as subjects. Brief references are also made to late artists Daphne Oram, Delia Derbyshire, and theremin master Clara Rockmore. More time could have easily been spent exploring their stories, including that of electronic musician and film composer Wendy Carlos, a trans woman whose album Switched on Bach was groundbreaking for mixing classical and electronic music, but is reduced to a mere reference point here.

As a documentary, Underplayed is a pretty good one that gets its point across in a mostly uplifting way, but it also feels a bit surface level. Bud Light is credited as the executive producer of the project, and this corporate influence is apparent, with the film at times coming across like a commercial for these music festivals. The film is also structured as a series of vignettes, constantly bringing in new subjects for a few moments of screen time, and it can feel a bit shapeless at ninety minutes. The slick production values and fast-paced editing do make it easily digestible to watch, but I also think it might have benefitted from having a tighter focus on a few of these artists.

With that said, Underplayed still offers an interesting glimpse into the deeper, systemic issue of sexism in the music industry and women not being recognized or given the same opportunities in the dance music scene, which we are reminded originated in Black, Hispanic and queer communities. The film does hold value as an introduction to these diverse artists, and the soundtrack is solid, too.

Underplayed is now streaming on Crave, and is available on a variety of other Digital and VOD platforms as of today. It’s being distributed in Canada by levelFILM.

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