The Sundance film festival returns to its London outpost at the O2 this weekend, once again with an enticing strand of music films and a few concerts to boot. Amid all the arty eccentricity, the real eye-opener is a new documentary about the American music festival the Electric Daisy Carnival. You’ve probably heard that Americans finally love dance music but you may not fully comprehend how much until you see 345,000 DayGlo ravers throwing shapes all over Las Vegas in dizzying 3D. “This is like the coolest, most awesomest moment of my life!” says one pink-and-green girl as she’s whisked onstage to join her favourite DJs, Above & Beyond.
Under the Electric Sky was made by Dan Cutforth and Jane Lipsitz, who also brought you recent big-screen docs about Justin Bieber and Katy Perry. After involvement with two of the world’s biggest pop stars, it’s natural that their eyes should come to rest on what’s known over there as the EDM scene (for Electronic Dance Music — no Acoustic Dance Music for Americans, oh no).
The sound — characterised by a thudding house beat, cavernous synthesized riffs and a naggingly catchy, turn-that-frown-upside-down chorus — now dominates the charts through euphoric singles released by multi-millionaire DJs such as Avicii, David Guetta and Afrojack.
Now that America gets it, Vegas is the new Ibiza and its culture of excess means that DJs command fees that dwarf the Nineties era of the UK superclubs such as Ministry of Sound and Cream. The business magazine Forbes now publishes a Rich List for DJs. Scotsman Calvin Harris was at the top in 2013, pulling in $46 million (£27 million) for more than 100 shows, as well as the songs he has written for himself and others, including Rihanna.
“Looking at what this is today and what it was when it started blows me away,” says Electric Daisy Carnival (EDC) promoter Pasquale Rotella in the film. He put on the first EDC on a much smaller scale as far back as 1997 in Los Angeles and speaks fondly of an American warehouse party scene at the start of the Nineties, suggesting that his countrymen aren’t quite as green as we old-hand Brit ravers might sneeringly imply.
In fact, they invented the form, even if the masses never really took it to heart, at the Eighties Chicago parties of DJ Frankie Knuckles, who died last month. But Rotella is correct to say that what’s happening now is on another level entirely.
EDC is currently the biggest dance festival in the world, with spin-off events in Mexico, New York, Orlando and now the UK: an inaugural event took place at the Olympic Park last summer and this year 50,000 clubbers will taste the experience at the Milton Keynes Bowl.
What’s changed? Many point to Daft Punk’s live appearance at California’s Coachella festival in 2006, at which the French robots performed on top of a giant illuminated pyramid and made all the rock bands on the line-up look pretty limp.
At EDC in 2013, each DJ was revealed by the unfurling wings of a giant animatronic owl, and the overwhelming light show made 3am look like midday. “There are no LEDs left in North America. They’re all here,” said one stage-hand.
There’s also something wholesome about EDC that has meant little resistance to its arrival in the mainstream. They’re careful to call it a festival, not a rave. There are no police battles here, and the film-makers, while acknowledging the presence of drugs, try to play it down.
We see a tired-looking doctor in a medical tent dealing with people who haven’t drunk enough water. A gang of beefcake dudes who call themselves “the Wolf Pack” tell of their bro who died from an overdose a few months earlier (an overdose of what is unclear) and vow to steer clear of anything illegal as a result.
Though in 2012 two attendees died beyond the festival’s walls — one was hit by a truck after drinking, the other fell from her hotel balcony — at EDC in 2013 just nine clubbers out of 345,000 were admitted to hospital and there was one DUI drug arrest.
We hear the Cedric Gervais song Molly (“Molly” being US slang for ecstasy in powder form), which Madonna infamously referenced at a Miami dance festival in 2012. She was smacked down by popular Canadian DJ deadmau5 at the time, who said: “EDM could use your positive influence, not ‘Molly’ talk.”
Avicii told me last year: “For me, it’s not a reference that’s at all accurate. It’s so far from my experience with this music.”
Rotella has said he sees his festival as “an adult Disneyland”. With your 3D glasses on, you’ll see that there are more than enough flashes, explosions and surreal sights (check the glowing bicycle-powered snake) to provide extreme sensory overload without doing anything illegal. The young, beautiful ravers cover themselves in multicoloured beads they call “candy” and otherwise wear as little as possible.
It’s clear EDC wants to be seen as a divine experience, not a place for drugs. In the film, the transformed space on the plain outside Las Vegas is compared to a cathedral, for the way it makes you feel small and spiritually alive.
“It must be a religious experience almost, to get here,” says Dutch DJ Tiësto. The kids set off from hundreds of miles away like committed pilgrims, arriving in Vegas in plain T-shirts and floral dresses and emerging reborn at the festival gates in shiny shorts and facepaint.
“It’s all very positive. It’s almost like Woodstock reinvented,” says another Dutch DJ giant, Armin van Buuren. Except now the peace and love comes with serious pyrotechnics on the side. Dance music has exploded in America with the Electric Daisy Carnival at its centre and, this time, it looks like it’s going to last.
Electric Daisy Carnival, July 12-13, Milton Keynes Bowl (0844 277 0700, electricdaisycarnival.com)