A chain of typically random events led me to recently sit down to a viewing of Electronica Reykjavik, directed by Arnar Jónsson and released by 'Zik/Zak.'. Despite this not being a 'hot' item for review (it's about six years old at the time of my viewing it), I still feel compelled to bring some attention to it, since there are few other reviews of this work available. This film is part of an informal series of films on Icelandic music, each with a different director, that began in the early 1980s with the highly illuminating and entertaining Rokk Í Reykjavík. The energy, frankness and sonic diversity of display in that latter film has been duplicated by very few music documentaries in the intervening years, and so I salute Jónsson's bravery for stepping into the arena and attempting to make a film that will apply the high standards of that Rokk Í Reykjavík to a different type of music culture.
Iceland is often decried as a land that imports all its modern culture, yet this assumption belies those singular phenomena - particularly the audial and grammatical qualities of the Icelandic language - that have no exact analog outside of Iceland, and have generated a healthy number of exports in the alternative culture milieux. The poet and 'networking artist' Rod Summers speaks for many of those enamoured of the land of ice and fire when claims to be "attracted to the courageous nature of the islanders, the fascinating living landscape, the bird population and the cold clean environment." Meanwhile, the 1980s wave of so-called 'post-punk' and 'post-industrial' musicians from the U.K. sought some comfort in the vestiges of surviving Norse paganism that continued to flicker there. Current 93 went so far as to release an album of the epic chants of Sveinbjörn Beinteinsson, the country's pre-eminent practicioner of the Ásatrú faith, and the same poet-priest was recorded on the Psychic TV album Those Who Do Not administering Ásatrú wedding rites for Genesis P. Orridge and his then wife Paula. Last, but not least, the Crass collective saw the early potential in Iceland's most famous daughter when it included her pre-Sugarcubes band K.U.K.L. in their international roster.
Anyone familiar with that recent history of cultural exchange will, for better or worse, be watching this film for similar moments in which a kind of cultural "untranslatability" manages to paradoxically speak to a universal, transcendent spirit of creativity. This burning anticipation will be rewarded from time to time, but with some bumps in the road. The first shortcoming of the film is in the title itself, which might hold out the promise of a more varied menu than what's actually on tap in the movie (and this certainly could have been rectified by expanding the film's running time beyond a brisk 50 minutes.) The focus is squarely upon electronic dance music, a fact that may upset those who look to this documentary for some thoughts on the development of non-'dance' acts such as Reptilicus, Stilluppsteypa, Runar Magnusson, Skúli Sverrisson, or even the Hafler Trio during "their" sojourn in the country. This is not to say that there aren't flashes of unexpected hybridization and unconventionality in the mix: the live experimentation of Ghostigital, for example, is repeatedly touched upon as an example of how "rock"-style Dionysian performance can be blended with more characteristically "dance" aesthetics. It's especially interesting to hear of Ghostigital vocalist Einar Örn's completely improvised stage routine, which often incorporates aspects of the immediate performance enviroment, like audience members yawning, into the unrehearsed lyrical flux.
One does get the feeling, though, that Jónsson's intention is to defuse the sense of Icelandic cultural difference entirely, and to bring the artists closer to the viewer via potentially shared experiences. Time and time again, the producers and DJs interviewed for this piece spin disarmingly familiar yarns about inter-generational misunderstanding (being told by parents that their repetitive techno records are "skipping"), or about the sense of oceanic consciousness arising from clandestine dance parties, or the (debatable) claim that "now anyone can become a musician" with the increased access to compositional machines. The film editing of the Reykjavik environment - particularly the shots of nighttime illumination and whizzing automobile traffic - also makes one briefly forget its actual size on the scale of urbanization (remember that the entire population of Iceland is less than that of a mid-sized Japanese city.)
There are, of course, factors other than Iceland's geographic isolation and population size that would lead it to have a dance culture not totally congruent with that of other European nations. One of these, I submit, would be the puzzling "beer ban" (lifted in 1989) that effectively limited drinking culture to the harder stuff and could have led to the erosion of the "casual drinking" culture that has allowed pubs to double as some of the most profitable live music venues. Rave culture in other nations has often been idealistically portrayed as rejecting the ills of alcohol abuse in favor of empathogens and communal physical exertion, and that connection is certainly brought up here as one of the possible reasons why Iceland's electronic dance music initially ignored drinking venues and created its own infrastructure from the ground up. Some of the locations revealed in the film, like auto repair garages, are amusing for their novelty but seem to work perfectly for long nights of strobing lights and mechanized audio grooves.
The film also would have benefitted from a more in-depth discussion of how the new electronica wave does, or doesn't, mesh with other aspects of Icelandic cultural industry. We hear, for example, about the early-90s strains of hardcore techno featuring as the soundtrack for local fashion shows for the Stussy brand, but there is little mention of how Icelandic electronica might also have a reciprocal relationship with local design innovations: the distinctive, naïve krútt [loosely "cute"] fashions of Iceland are hinted at by the Super Mario-inspired pullover of Tanya Pollock during her interview segments, for example. There may in fact be no reciprocal relationship, but with a music as "integrative" as electronic dance, I always come to suspect it as part of a more all-encompassing lifestyle and look to documents like this to confirm or deny that suspicion.
I've promised my readers here not to put anything up for review that I feel to be bad (and not instructive in their badness.) And Electronica Reykjavik is not a bad film, for either culture historians or for casual viewers. For all the flaws mentioned here, Jónsson is still to be commended for not taking some of the obvious easy roads he could have taken: I can't, for example, recall a single mention of Björk in the film, despite her being almost synonymous with "electronica" ever since that term gained currency in the 1990s. Jónsson also resists the temptation to allot more speaking time to the film's most popular act - the electro-soul supergroup GusGus - thus avoiding the documentary conceit that greater popularity equals "having more to say." His film does a fine job of not presenting Icelanders and their club culture as uniformly glamorous and slick, (although, if I can make one last comparison to Rokk i Reykjavik, I was hoping to see another great shot of girls knitting in the midst of the club scenes:)
This honesty is the most redeeming quality of the film, and that alone gives it a place within the larger historical appraisal of electronic music.
Electronica Reykjavik is now viewable free of charge on the intriguing, potentially addictive film site Icelandic Cinema Online, where you'll surely unearth numerous other gems that are not licensed for streaming on Netflix or Amazon.