The life of the DJ is often presented as a utopia on screen. Can Idris Elba’s new show Turn Up Charlie buck the trend?
Vacant-looking women in bikini tops. Huge fluffy mountains of cocaine. Pretty people gently rutting on a brightly lit dancefloor. No sweat. No shirts. No one over 30. Congratulations! You are watching a film about dance music and DJ culture! Yet anyone who has ever been to an actual club will know that the chasm between what we see in movies and on television compared to the real experience of being in a sticky warehouse in Hackney Wick at 1am on a Friday night is vast. From the lurid It’s All Gone Pete Tong and glossy We Are Your Friends to the pilled-up gurn-fest that is Human Traffic, we have had well over two decades of clubbing on our screens, yet it is rarely depicted truthfully.
Evidently, there is something about the role of a DJ that is impossible to capture, but the new Netflix comedy series Turn Up Charlie, starring Idris Elba as a washed-up garage DJ, comes closer than most. That’s mainly because Elba’s character is far from a major player. There are no sold-out shows at Printworks, weekly residencies at Phonox or headline slots at Dekmantel for Charlie. Instead, Craig David pities him, he does wedding sets for £50, dosses about with his perma-stoned sidekick – played by Man Like Mobeen’s Guz Khan – and ends up as a nanny for a spoilt 11-year-old whom he takes to Cyberdog instead of the cinema.
When it comes to an honest portrayal of DJs and clubs, all too often there is a focus on an imagined world of glitz and glamour. “DJing is, in essence, a banal and repetitive process and I think films sometimes try to unduly sex it up or turn it into some kind of sport,” explains David Jenkins, editor of the movie mag Little White Lies. Take We Are Your Friends, Hollywood’s overbearingly white look at the rise of EDM as a case in point. That 2014 travesty hinges its entire narrative on two outrageously fit people not wearing very many clothes. The only real question you’re left with after watching an hour-and-a-half of sunsets and vest tops is how on earth do Zac Efron and Emily Ratajkowski manage to still look sexy when they’re two pingers deep. From the music to the drugs, everything is taken far too seriously. Headphones are surgically attached to Efron’s head for almost the entire film and at no point does anyone genuinely look as if they’re having fun. On the flipside, in 1999’s Human Traffic, notable mainly for a baby-faced Danny Dyer’s big-screen debut, people are having far too much of a good time. “One of the very worst films ever made, it attempts to fun it up with jumpy, beat-matched editing and smash zooms and such, which adds to the entire lack of credibility,” says Jenkins of the movie.
Colm Forde, founder of music documentary festival Doc’n Roll concurs: “These films focus on the lowest common denominator: the controversial, cheap-laugh narratives which are the drugs and the messy lifestyle that goes with the scene.”
That’s why Human Traffic misses the mark and why Noel Fielding’s ultra-annoying Squarepusher-lite twat Jones in Nathan Barley is funny but certainly not an accurate portrayal of your average DJ. It’s All Gone Pete Tong from 2005 is guilty of following the same lazy formula. Telling the story of Paul Kaye’s extremely lairy DJ Frankie Wilde – a name taken straight out of the Mixmag Make Yer Own Wicked Superstar DJ Name book – losing his hearing, in one bizarre scene a giant badger shovels mountains of cocaine into Wilde’s face. “It’s all about the drug use more than the creation of the music or the artistic side. The film-makers go for the easy hook to catch the audience,” adds Forde.
Amazonica, Marilyn Manson’s tour DJ and a resident at London’s Chiltern Firehouse, agrees that no film or show has ever really done clubbing culture justice. “The only one that vaguely gets it right is Kill Your Friends,” she says. “There are a couple of club scenes in that and they nail the insanity of the music industry in the 1990s and the whole machine.” When it comes to on-screen DJs, there’s another issue – hardly any are women. “There’s absolutely zero,” confirms Amazonica.
Scripted by former Skins writer Georgia Lester, this is something that Turn Up Charlie does address. US actor Piper Perabo steps down off the bar at Coyote Ugly to play a world-class electronic DJ who, when she’s not working the terrace at Space, is busy being a bad mother. Well, you can’t have everything, can you? For Amazonica, the reason clubbing doesn’t translate to film is because the mediums are too similar. “DJs are giving you an experience, they’re taking you on the journey. So it’s like watching a movie where you leave your life at the door for two hours.”
Forde agrees: “It’s hard to capture because essentially it’s an immersive experience that doesn’t translate easily to a cinema environment.”
Recently, however, Channel 4’s The Bisexual managed to pull off some of the most realistic club scenes seen on the small screen. Director and star Desiree Akhavan pulled off set-pieces depicting everything from queer east London discos to singalong power-ballad nights and sweaty raves, which weren’t just believable, but also looked appealing. “It really pisses me off how neutered club scenes are in most film and television,” says Akhavan. Her approach was simple: fill the screen full of bodies and make everything that bit messier, just like a real night out. Extras were flung into the action, flitting between the cast and the camera like a choreographed dance. “Every time a club scene doesn’t [work] it’s because it feels too sterile and the extras aren’t moving enough. It’s about painting with bodies and painting with light.”
Akhavan’s other bugbear in club scenes is too much brightness. That’s something Netflix’s inoffensive, Gillian Jacobs-starring, gal-pal-rom-com Ibiza is guilty of, with its interiors of Balearic clubs lit up like the Blackpool Tower. Presumably this is so we can see more of Richard Madden’s chiseled jawline as he plays a knock-off Calvin Harris, but she’s right – what kind of club ever has the lights on full-blast? “People not screaming over the music is another thing,” adds Akhavan. “You can’t hear shit in those clubs; why is there suddenly this very clean closeup of someone speaking in a normal level to someone else about a secret? Those things take me out of the moment.”
If there is one film that unites everyone, though, it is Mia Hansen-Løve’s Eden from 2015, “the perfect mix of music and melancholia”, according to the Guardian. Here the DJs are quiet, studied and very French. Stripped of the obnoxiousness of their British or US counterparts (and with some good in-jokes about Daft Punk), they offer a less flashy take on proceedings. “It embraces the banality, the fact that as an occupation it’s antisocial, requires an unhealthy level of obsession, and is essentially lonely night-owl work,” says Jenkins, who names it as one of his all-time favourites. “And the film is actually about something more than music, which makes the subject inherently more interesting.” So if you’re after an accurate portrayal of the life of a DJ, Eden is the one. Or you could just go clubbing instead.
Turn Up Charlie is on Netflix from Friday 15 March