To call EDM DJ and Dim Mak label founder Steve Aoki “passionate” about his ambitions would be a serious understatement. As evidenced in Justin Krook's documentary I'll Sleep When I'm Dead, the Newport Harbor High School alum is an adamant workaholic. He hits several DJ gigs worldwide, records and masters new songs, does interviews, shoots videos and works out, often all in the course of a day. He barely finds time for a nap when he's on his private jet, en route to the next item on his schedule.
I'll Sleep When I'm Dead gets to the heart of Aoki's drive, and Krook allows audiences into not just his world, but his personality and character, highlighing his wild stage antics, such as riding inflatable rafts in the crowd, dousing audiences with champagne, and—famously—hurling giant sheet cakes into the audience. As stated by musical colleague Diplo in the film's cold open, “dance music doesn't have personality—Steve has an overabundance of personality.”
Sleep follows Aoki along as he works towards the release of his latest album at Madison Square Garden in New York, but also explores his backstory, told in his own words and those of childhood friends, family and collaborators. The main inspiration for Aoki's own crazy work ethic is his late father, Rocky Aoki, a man with his own inhuman work ethic who was a former wrestler from Japan, founder of the Japanese restaurant chain Benihana, self-made millionaire, record holder for the longest hot-air-balloon ride and sports legend. One of the major themes in this film, as well as in Aoki's life, is his desperate wish to earn his father's validation and pride, which was sadly hard to win, as the famous Rocky bluntly explained in a television interview that business was his top priority, followed by health, then family.
For Aoki, hardcore punk music at UC Santa Barbara gave him voice and identity. In 1996, he founded the Dim Mak label, breaking out big players such as Bloc Party, the Kills, Pretty Girls Make Graves, achievements that landed Aoki on the cover of BPM magazine. He later channeled his success into building his name as a DJ at Dim Mak's weekly residency at LA-based venue Cinespace, apprenticing under the late, great Adam Goldstein, a.k.a. DJ AM, before reaching mainstream success. Yet, none of his rising fame and business fortune would impress Rocky, who was at odds with a youth culture and scene he couldn't understand.
This revelation is the most poignant of the film, and it adds a level of pathos to Aoki's story. We also learn that Aoki's high school years in Newport Beach were marked by racism and nonacceptance from classmates, as well as loneliness. Early in the film, Aoki is showing his girlfriend around his old stomping grounds of Newport Harbor High, telling her about the time a spectator at his high school football game yelled hateful racial slurs at him while he was on the field. And even as a successful DJ, Aoki solemnly addresses the incensed internet hate he receives from electronic music purists for breaking non-EDM artists like rappers, indie bands and punk into their genre turf. But as the EDM heavies get louder, Aoki's personable, positive spin on things allows him to look past it all, and focus on the people who came to see him do his thing. For every hater, Aoki knows there's always a crowd dying to get caked by him.
Krook, who's exclusively directed music videos prior to Sleep, obviously has his filmmaking skills on fleek, so he doesn't disappoint in giving you the type of documentary film you'd expect on a subject like Aoki. There are plenty of montages of Aoki performing, mixed with shots of scantily clad audience members raving and holding up “Cake Us” signs, all illuminated with crisp cinematography. The opening sequence, soundtracked by Wagner's “Ride of the Valkyries,” is an especially epic, slow motion concert montage against interviews with Jason Bentley, Laidback Luke, Tiesto and others. Whether you're acquainted with rave culture or not, you instantly become a part of it, and are witness to the electric energy that makes it so magnetizing, exciting and marketable to youths worldwide.
But it's more refreshing when Krook kicks into cinema vérité mode, letting us know he's not afraid to let a shot linger on an extremely tense moment. In this way, I'll Sleep When I'm Dead presents a fascinating, honest look at an iconic producer who lives life at the highest decibel and who'll strive harder to go even higher, sleepless nights be damned.
I'll Sleep When I'm Dead was directed by Justin Krook. Premieres Fri. on Netflix.