Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

"Particularly inspiring here are the collaborations between women, whether composers, musicians, engineers or a blend of these." | Photo: Courtesy of Glasgow Film Festival

When it first emerged, birthed by the likes of Suzanne Ciani, Clara Rockmore and Delian Derbyshire, whose most famous creation issued forth from half the TV sets in the UK from 1963 onwards, electronic music seemed particularly suited to women. Composers could work alone without having to rely on musicians - who at the time were mostly male - during the early creative stages of their work. They could play their music in alternative spaces inhabited by artists and minority communities rather than having to rely on a concert circuit dominated by men or on clubs and pubs that were often unsafe for them. Over time, as more women moved into those spaces anyway and attitudes began to change, it ought t have becomes easier still; but at the same time, white men were swiftly coming to control and dominate the scene they had built, using existing power structures in the music industry and the media to render female creators invisible. Today, female composers of electronic music face systemic exclusion. Stacey Lee's documentary sets out to tell their stories and give them a platform from which to challenge this injustice.

The catalyst for the film was a list of the supposed Top 100 DJs in electronic music published in 2019 by Billboard & DJ magazine - a list which included only five women. Four of those women - Alison Wonderland, Nervo, Rezz and TokiMonsta - speak here, and not one of them is happy with the situation. They're joined by other, less well known female artists who describe the relentless hostility they've experienced in the industry, from groping at gigs to death threats on social media, relentless focus on their looks and - when they do receive any kind of accolade - suggestions that it's only a result of positive discrimination or that they've slept their way to the top. They explain how, in some cases, racism and homophobia have combined with this to make their lives and careers even more difficult. These are the sorts of incidents which, individually, are easily dismissed, but when so many women come together with so many examples, the systemic problem is undeniable. It's also easier to see the damaging effect that it has on mental health.

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Bringing these artists together also gives Lee the chance to showcase their music in all its diversity and highlight their individual styles, making it impossible to claim that any aspect of the music itself is the problem. Fans of EDM will find this aspect of the film highly enjoyable and full of tantalising snippets of sound which they may want to to go off and explore further. If this means you, make sure that you're in a position to take notes whilst you watch.

Particularly inspiring here are the collaborations between women, whether composers, musicians, engineers or a blend of these. Several of the participants testify to the greater ease with which they can do creative work this way, saying that they frequently experience barriers with men who don't fully pay attention to what they want. As well as a challenge to the status quo and a showcase for talent, the film is a rallying cry for women who are considering working in the industry, highlighting the fact that there are others there and that if they reach out to them, they will receive support.

A celebration of past achievements and of those breaking the sound barrier today, Underplayed is an important piece of work.

Reviewed on: 27 Feb 2021
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Music documentary portrays radical female artists breaking the rhythm of inequality in the electronic music industry and opening doors for the next generation.
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Director: Stacey Lee

Year: 2020

Runtime: 87 minutes

Country: Canada

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