UNDERPLAYED – Review by Leslie Combemale

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The comment “there’s just something about her I don’t like” written to Canadian DJ and producer Rezz is misogyny disguised as vague criticism. It’s something said over and over in reference to female politicians and female filmmakers, but the film Underplayed shows we can add female electronic musicians to the list of professionals similarly dissed or dismissed.

With her feature debut, New Zealand documentarian Stacey Lee shines a (strobe) light on women in the electronic music space, focusing on several well-known pioneers, as well as women who were part of the 7% listed on 2019’s “Billboard Top 100 DJs”. If that number seems shocking, note the more intersectional the performer, the worse the numbers get. Though genres like house and techno evolved out of LGBT, Black, Brown, and Latino communities, the highest paid and best represented performers don’t reflect that history. In fact, type in the names of any of the female musicians highlighted in this documentary into Apple music, and under ‘similar artists’, in nearly every case you’ll find all those listed are men.

Underplayed begins by covering some of what Lee calls “ the pioneering godmothers of electronic music”, like Clara Rockmore, Susanne Ciani, Delia Derbyshire, and Wendy Carlos, and their often unheralded importance to music history. Michelle Moog-Koussa, of the Bob Moog Foundation, says her father offered Rockmore, the most famous and storied virtuosa of the Theramin in history, a Theramin made by him, and she told him his weren’t as good as those made by Theramin himself, so he used her as a guide to better his own circuitry. We see footage of Wendy Carlos in her studio in the 50s, complete with her two siamese cats, and as one of the most knowledgable electronic musicians, she too inspired Moog for his designs. According to Moog-Koussa, women play a big role in the invention of electronic instruments.

Lee follows and offers interviews with top musician performers like Alison Wonderland, NERVO, Rezz, Tygapaw, and TOKIMONSTRA, and also speaks to artists of diverse backgrounds and levels of success, including Nightwave, Sherelle, Louisahhh!!!, and Asmara. The director focuses on introducing the audience to each performer’s music, but also allows us to get to know them and their day to day struggles as artists in an industry that, even today, makes it very difficult for women to succeed. A study across the three major record labels recently revealed that women make 29% less than their male counterparts. There are quotes from artists both young and tenured about the way they have been treated or spoken to, like Susan Rogers, Prince’s engineer from 1983-1988, who said she was routinely asked “Which ideas are yours? What did you actually do?” Rezz came back from her biggest performance to see comments on social media that included “YOU SHOULD KILL YOURSELF” (written all in caps), “I hope she’s better in bed”, and worse. Where queerness, color, gender, and electronic music meet is a place filled with dangers from micro-aggressions by supposed fans to life-threatening situations at live performances. Still, the musicians, music journalists and activists in Underplayed argue that it is essential to society to have diverse voices represented in music as in all art.

As someone who works to promote women in film, the statistics and stories told by artists sound all too familiar. Female filmmakers and female electronic musicians are unfortunate sisters. Many female directors and musicians are trolled mercilessly online. They also share the experience of fighting for inclusion in their industries, and though there have been many women directors and women creating electronic music, that lack of recognition or attention has made it seem to the outside world that they don’t exist. As Underplayed shows, these women do exist, and they are making music that spans all electronic and dance subgenres. What’s more, there are many other girls and women working alone in basements somewhere layering tracks and creating inspired work that deserves to be heard and recognized.

The film is funded by Bud Light Canada, a company that has proven their committed to raising up female artists. They have workshops that educate would-be artists, and produced Underplayed as just one way to help drive change from within the industry. After being questioned and undermined by her sound engineer, Alison Wonderland replaced him with a female engineer. She also mounted a tour with women in every role onstage. Whitney Olpin, Alison’s sound mixer explains, “You can’t be what you can’t see, so it’s really important to have women onstage. It sends a message to girls that are interested in doing this.” Whether you are a fan of dance or electronic music, or just believe parity in all industries benefits everyone, you’ll be educated, entertained, infuriated and inspired by Underplayed.

5 out of 5 stars.

Underplayed is streaming on Prime Video.

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Leslie Combemale

Leslie Combemale writes as Cinema Siren on her own website, CinemaSiren.com, and is a frequent contributor to MPA's TheCredits.org, where she interviews filmmakers above and below the line, with a focus on women and diverse voices. She is the Senior Contributor at AWFJ.org. Leslie is in her 9th year as producer and moderator of the influential "Women Rocking Hollywood" panel at San Diego Comic-Con. She is a world-renowned expert on cinema art and her film art gallery, ArtInsights, located near DC, has celebrated cinema art and artists for 30 years.