A new documentary on Netflix tells the story of the EDM performer and entrepreneur, but it resists the urge to ask the hard questions.
I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead can be summed up simply: Steve Aoki has daddy issues. The documentary on the EDM producer and label owner debuts today on Netflix, and it depicts Aoki as a guy who felt the long, emotionally unavailable shadow of his father, Rocky Aoki. The older Aoki was a larger than life guy—an Olympic wrestler from Japan who stayed in the United States, started the Benihana restaurant chain, then lived the adventurer’s life as he raced speed boats and flew hot air balloons over remarkable distances. When not pursuing thrills, he got his adrenaline fix the old fashioned way as a celebrity surrounded by stars and starlets.
Director Justin Krook doesn’t depict Rocky Aoki as a worthy role model, but he doesn’t draw a lot of attention to his shortcomings either. Instead, Krook allows Steve Aoki’s assessment of his father’s inaccessibility—it’s cultural—to stand, even if his flaws seem more personal to us. Then we watch as the younger Aoki emulate him in ways.
The narrative used to open the door into Aoki’s life is a planned concert at Madison Square Gardens timed to accompany an album release, but it has less emotional impact than Krook would like. When the album’s delay forces plans to change, it’s hard to connect to Aoki’s disappointment because his compuslive touring schedule didn’t leave him time to work. If the album was important, you’d think he would have scheduled time to record it, and if he thought he could do it between tours, you’re forced to wonder how much thought, effort, and quality control go into his music.
Perhaps because Krook focuses on Aoki’s relationship to his largely absent father, his mother, Chizuru Kobayashi, gets far too little credit or attention. After a lot of detailed, specific attention to Rocky, Krook finally pays attention to Aoki’s mother late in the movie in a short section long on generalities. Aoki credits her with standing by him when his father thought he should get a job, and being there for him each time his father shut him down. If it weren’t for the way I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead largely ignores her for most of the film, the moment when Aoki talks about her could pass without notice because there’s nothing visually arresting in the sequence, nor does Aoki have the kind of stories about her that he tells about dad.
The only way Kobayashi gets her due in the film is that Krook neither dubs nor subtitles her Japanese answers to questions. At first it seems odd because unless you speak Japanese, you don’t know what she’s saying, but the gesture seems respectful to let her speak for herself. Seeing her speak untranslated drew attention to the ways that subtitling someone’s speech is subtly patronizing, and letting someone speak for her likely means editing her. The decision to let her speak for herself was one of the film’s boldest and most distinctive decisions. It could have used a few more like it.
Perhaps because he relies on Aoki for access, Krook doesn’t ask hard questions. He doesn’t press Aoki on the irony of the ways he has become like his father, and a woman who looks like she might be a girlfriend early in the film is gone without explanation by the end. Krook mentions in passing that Aoki’s music had changed, but not from what to what, or why. He does quote the tweets of people who hate Aoki, but he never gets into the source of their hostility. Because of that, I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead seems to want us to take Aoki at face value, even when the footage makes that hard to do.
Krook gets at something though, whether by intent or luck. The details might be different, but much of the slow motion concert footage brings to mind live videos for Motley Crüe and similar ’80s pop metal bands. The camera captures the worshipful fans in the front rows, the epic sweep of the performance across a stage as vast as a Walmart parking lot, the camaraderie between the musician and (usually) his crew, and the special bond between the performer and (usually) his fans. The live material emphasizes the spectacle of Aoki’s show as the high tech production is matched with such low-tech gimmicks as pouring champagne in and on people, crowd surfing in an inflatable raft, and crushing someone in the face with a cake. The comparison feels fair because Aoki’s music, like so much hair metal, asks little more of its audience than a willingness to party, and for that reason, Aoki’s as broadly popular as Bon Jovi.
Essentially, I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead is an extended episode of VH-1’s Behind the Music. Aoki’s an easy guy to spend time with in a movie because he’s professionally gregarious. The news of the documentary is its existence because I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead is likely one of the first documentaries with an electronic dance music focus to reach a mainstream audience. EDM may be huge, but it remains subcultural as a presence in our national conversation. Krook treats the music as a given and not something novel that needs to be explained. He never overtly or implicitly moralizes about it, and the only place where he seems out of touch with the EDM community and its values is the narrative emphasis on Aoki’s album. EDM so far has been a singles and EP-oriented genre. When Neon Future I was released, it debuted at number one on Billboard’s electronic dance music chart but number 32 on the Hot 200 list, selling only 10,000 copies in its first week.
Krook also never questions the validity of Aoki’s music or how he makes it—something that has been the subject of controversy as critics wonder how much of his music he actually performs. Since the live footage in I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead often shows Aoki away from his mixer and working the crowd, it’s a question viewers will likely ask as well.