Music documentaries usually focus on one artist’s career or get made posthumously, putting a spotlight on their fandom and personal struggles, because that’s what attracts the majority of viewers who want to see some inside scoops, they could otherwise just google. Stacey Lee‘s first feature Underplayed is not that kind of film. Instead she celebrates the talented women who made electronic music what it is today, and dissects the underrepresentation of minorities in the music industry.

From the very first scene, Lee gives those who aren’t so familiar with the history of electronic music a quick lesson, by letting pioneer Suzanne Ciani share her own experiences and role models, such as Delia Dertyshire and Clara Rockmoore. The documentary is structured around facts and numbers that are quite honestly shocking. One of the first topics she discusses is the underrepresentation of female deejays in the top 150 clubs of the world (an embarrassing 6 percent) and how less than 3% of production and technical roles in the music industry are given to women. Underplayed then moves forward to individually focus on the only five artists who were featured on Billboard and DJ Magazines’ top 100 DJ list of 2019.

Canadian EDM superstar Rezz is not just a DJ, she’s opened up about her sexual orientation and is well aware of her status as a role model. This way she inspires up and coming talent, explaining how she started in her parent’s basement with little to no equipment. Now she’s headlining the biggest festivals on the planet. The slick editing and visually impressive cinematography moves from Niagara Falls to New York, where Dion McKenzie, better known as Tygapaw, recounts her struggles as a Jamaican Queer woman in the industry, trying to make a difference by giving a voice and platform to those who never get noticed. Her story is possibly the strongest this documentary reports on, knowing women of colour make up less than 0.3% of production and technical roles in the music industry, Tygapaw’s journey had a big impact on me. Growing up, she looked up to Grace Jones, whose unique way of artistry and expression of personal views on the world were too much for that time, but inevitably made her a visionary icon like no other.

Every single one of these artists has had, and still has, to deal with prejudices and the fear of being ostracized. The psychic weight of online trolling, always being pushed to proof their worth and the anxiety that comes with it, becomes unbearable and has caused the highest ranking artist on that infamous DJ List, Alison Wonderland, to take a break from performing to protect her mental health. Besides these talented well known names, the film gives a chance for up and coming voices to express their struggles and tell their own story. Coming from all corners of the world, they get backed by influential people who work in the music industry and give their own professional advice. Susan Rogers, Prince’s music engineer in the ’80s and producer Mark Ronson join in on the conversation, while Underplayed shares more success stories that have risen from a place of pain or the fight for their right to be on that stage.

Underplayed never undermines these women’s exceptional talent, instead it amplifies their voices and empowers the many unknown artists who might be watching this film. This isn’t just their battle to feel seen, it’s up to all of us to eradicate the sexism that rules this industry and permanently change the way the world looks at female artists.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Underplayed is screening as part of TIFF20:
Saturday, September 19 at 6pm (online) and 8pm @ OLG Play Stage at Ontario Place, followed by a live performance set with Top 100 DJ/Producer REZZ.
Tickets are available HERE

TIFF20 Review – ‘Underplayed’

Reviewed online (as part of Toronto International Film Festival), September 16, 2020. Rating: TBC. Running time: 88 min.

PRODUCTION: A Popp Rok production. Producer: William Crouse. Executive producer: Bud Light Canada, Taj Critchlow, Director X..

CREW: Director: Stacey Lee. Writing: Neil Blewett, Georgia Dodson, Stacey Lee. Editor: Georgia Dodson. Cinematography: Zoe Simone Yi. Music: Kate Simko.

CAST: Nervo, Nightwave, Rezz, Sherelle, TokiMonsta, Tygapaw, Alison Wonderland.

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