When I walked into this movie, I didn’t know who Swedish House Mafia was. I mean, I’d maybe heard their name before, and once their songs played on the soundtrack, a couple of them sounded familiar. But I didn’t know anything about Swedish House Mafia, electronic/techno/club music (or however it’s most properly described), or any of the story. This was not a movie made for me. And yet, despite all that, it’s a movie I really enjoyed.
If you’re like me, the opening of the documentary catches you up pretty quickly: Swedish House Mafia is a DJ trio from Sweden (duh) who have achieved worldwide acclaim and success. In 2012, at arguably the peak of their popularity and with no reason to suspect they might be in decline, they announced that they’d be breaking up the band, but would first go on an epic 50 date worldwide (literally) farewell concert tour. The questions immediately arise: Is there something wrong? Did the band have a falling out? Why quit now? Why not keep making music that so many millions of people quite obviously love?
The movie asks all this at the top of the film primarily through interviews with the band’s fans who are in line waiting for tickets or entrance to one of their shows. I immediately sympathized; the fans’ objections to the band’s split seemed completely valid. Some might write it off as entitlement, but there is a real sense that something is unjustly being taken away from all these people who care so much about this band. Then the movie plays out without any shocking revelations, no firm declarations about why the band is folding. It’s not even something the band members want to talk about most of the time (more on this in a bit). A fair bit of the movie just plays out like a concert recording. But something kind of remarkable happens by the end of the film. Director Christian Larson shows us those fans again, and even though they were saying the same things, they were no longer voicing my opinions. I didn’t have any specific answer for why the band was breaking up, but I knew that, regardless of fans’ opinions, it was the right decision. It no longer felt like a robbery, but a necessity. Even an inevitability.
This is very much a movie that seeks to explain to fans why Swedish House Mafia is disbanding, but the irony is that the members don’t seem to wholly know why themselves. This is a film that’s highly emotionally communicative, but which is about people who come off as emotionally unintelligent. Axel Hedfors, Sebastian Ingrosso, and Steve Angello (the three band members) spend huge portions of the film trying to explain, not only to the camera but to themselves individually, why they became Swedish House Mafia, what the band has meant to them, what they wanted out of the band, and why they are breaking up, but as mentioned, they never arrive at anything concrete. There are some elements to that tale that are consistent across all three members and hint at either particular past problems or else something more systematic. There seem to be some minor interpersonal issues, especially, which never got sorted out and grew into something more serious, but it’s impossible to attribute the band’s breakup to a single fight or bad habit. It’s kind of infuriating, but it’s also incredibly refreshing. The film doesn’t feel the need to come to a hard and fast conclusion where it seems obvious there’s none to be found.
This is also where the movie rises above just being a work for fans and enters a space where someone like me can find real meaning as well. Throughout the movie, it’s clear that the band is still working through some very complex issues that have neither clear cause nor clear solution. But also present throughout is an overwhelming sense of joy. Every fan they show in a post concert interview is smiling from ear to ear. The energy the band members themselves put into their work is infectious. There’s very clearly a passion for their work here, a zest for making music that infuses the way each man lives his life and a burning desire to share the joy and love they’ve found in music with others. Especially as the doc moves through and past its midpoint, it’s this juxtaposition of joy and melancholy that becomes its most defining feature, and it all ties back to Swedish House Mafia as a separate and finite thing in which each of the band members participated.
In a lot of ways the movie is reckoning with the idea of change. Swedish House Mafia is set up as a label which means a particular thing, both to its fans and to its members. It is a descriptor for a moment in time, which the people who participated in it now feel themselves being pulled out of. We as human beings are changing our whole lives, yet we live in a world which preaches stagnation, and this is a message. It’s something the band members – and the fans – struggle with. At each show, it seems they are trying (and usually able) to recall this particular, finite thing that was such a moment of bliss, yet the question of how to move forward is continuously thrust upon them and continuously more difficult to ignore. It would have been nice to know more of the specifics of what happened to cause the band to break up, but that would have also destroyed an incredible and very relatable sense of mystery that pervades the film and plays very well into the idea that time is ever passing.
Thematically and emotionally, Larson has just about nailed it. In fact, the only part of the film I really didn’t like was the structure of the plot. It’s not just that the documentary hits familiar subjects – we do meet the band members, we see just enough of their youth, their families, and their backgrounds to establish them as real and relatable people, see a few of their hobbies, their personalities, but all of this is both necessary and well done – but it’s more that the editing seemed it force a predictable structure upon the movie that wasn’t necessarily there in the footage alone. The tour starts off strong, emotions go down, we see the grind of it all, people bicker, there’s a climax, then they all come back for the final leg strong but changed. It all progresses in a way that might have been there in the footage, but probably wasn’t as pronounced. I’m betting you could have found euphoric and angry shots of all the band members from every single show, but they’re only used in a way that builds a very predictable macro-narrative. This doesn’t hurt the emotional payoff; as I said near the top, it’s astounding how much my opinion of the band’s decision changed without my even realizing it until those final fan interviews. But I do wish there would have been a way to maintain that and also surprise a little more with the narrative.
The Verdict: 4 out of 5
As a non-fan of Swedish House Mafia, there were some initial difficulties finding my way into the film. I wanted, for example, to know why these guys were such a big deal and what made their music exceptional as compared to others doing similar things. These aren’t questions that are ever really answered, but as the film progressed I realized they weren’t questions the film cares about. This is a movie meant for fans, and it does an incredible job of subtly moving the audience to a place of understanding of the band’s decision to split up. But what makes this film really good is that it does this in such an emotionally compelling way, putting up a very authentic vision of the interplay of joy and melancholy in the whole of life. It pushes even beyond this to comment on ideas of transience, and the difficulty and folly in striving for permanence in a world that is never standing still. Some structural issues aside, this is a must watch for fans and a very enjoyable documentary for newcomers to the world of house music.