Welcome to Cheat Sheet, our brief breakdown-style reviews of festival films, VR previews, and other special event releases. This review originally appeared in conjunction with Give Me Future’s premiere at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival. It is being reposted to coincide with the film’s Apple Music release.
“There’s something young happening here,” DJ Walshy Fire says late in the sprawling, inspiring concert documentary Give Me Future. He’s sitting outdoors in Havana, Cuba with Diplo and Jillionaire, his partners in the genre-hopping electronic-music trio Major Lazer. They’re talking with reverent awe about Cuba’s music scene, and how rapidly it’s changing.
A little over a year after President Obama eased the 54-year trade sanction against Cuba, Major Lazer went to Havana for an unprecedented mega-scale outdoor concert. (They beat the Rolling Stones there by about three weeks.) Give Me Future — a conscious titular riff on the famous 1970 Stones documentary Gimme Shelter — covers that concert, but it spends much more time exploring Cuban youth culture, the current state of music, the ambitions of local musicians, and the idiosyncratic technology that binds everything.
What’s the genre?
Concert film, used as a back door for a wide-ranging, scene-exploring doc about technology, art, and culture.
What’s it about?
The first international musical act coming to Cuba since the US trade embargo relaxed, from the point of view of the band, their staff, the fans, and Cuban artists.
What’s it really about?
Change, wild artistic energy, and “something young happening.”
Is it good?
Absolutely. (In spite of its low IMDB rating, which seems to be conscious sabotage — hundreds of American users gave the film one star before the film was ever released in America, and it’s unclear why.) To the degree that there’s a downside, it’s this: maybe 80 percent of the film is lead-up to the actual concert, and it’s full of tremendous surprises and interesting sidebars, so compared with all of that, the show itself is a wee bit wearying. The cinematography and onstage camera access are terrific — one up-close-and-personal wraparound shot of the stage dancers feels like an immersive VR experience waiting to happen. And early on, the energy of 400,000 fans packed together to celebrate the band is tremendous. But then the show goes on and on, song after song, crowd shot after crowd shot, interrupted only by participants offering repetitive minor variations on “It was amazing to be there,” and “It was a great experience.” There’s nothing wrong with the show, and Major Lazer superfans may even feel there isn’t enough live performance in this documentary. For everyone else, though, the concert footage just can’t live up to the variety and surprise that precedes it.
The lead-up is what makes Give Me Future so fascinating, even to viewers who aren’t already invested in the band or the wide stylistic sprawl of the EDM scene. One of the film’s biggest appeals is how the DJ trio — especially Diplo, dubbed “DJ Diplomacy” by one news report — seems authentically invested in and excited by the local young up-and-comers. The film follows Diplo to press conferences and informal sit-downs with musicians, where he asks intelligent questions and listens intently to the answers. At other times, the film is downright hilarious, especially when Diplo, Walshy Fire, and Jillionaire start unashamedly throwing major shade at the Rolling Stones for being opportunistic, cowardly latecomers to the Havana party.
But Give Me Future is sometimes phenomenally beautiful as well. Director Austin Peters often walks away from Major Lazer to explore current Cuban music and culture. His sidebars include a journalistic look into Cuba’s relationship with the Internet — as of 2013, less than 5 percent of Cuban households had it — and how the government’s few wi-fi hotspots lead to impromptu public gatherings of people from all walks of life. Peters explores the Paquete, an entirely offline piracy network that spreads international culture across Cuba via hard drives passed hand-to-hand among subscribers. (In one of the film’s many laugh lines, the young man running the Paquete says Netflix has contacted him for distribution-network pointers. That pleases him, because he admires their business: “Netflix is an online Paquete.”) Peters talks with local musicians who are doing pioneering work in local electronica, house, and an evolving form of rhumba. He digs into the major barriers to putting on a major concert in Havana, from sourcing high-end production equipment in a technologically deprived country to running all plans past a nervous, touchy government that’s openly afraid of youth culture’s power.
And then, as if to give viewers a break from the barrage of information, Peters periodically relaxes into moments of pure art, with the camera studying faces, skateboarders on the move, a young couple kissing, or whatever else catches his eye. Give Me Future is a remarkably dense portrait of a place and a moment.
What should it be rated?
This is a marquee showcase for why the MPAA’s profanity rules are ridiculous. Technically, this is an R-rated film, entirely because musicians like to say “fuck.” But everything else about the film should be suitable for a G rating, and younger teenagers in particular would probably be into what this movie says about the empowering value of youth culture.
How can I actually watch it?
Give Me Future debuts on Apple Music on November 17, 2017. It’s a shame it didn’t get wider distribution: it’s exactly the kind of diversity-minded, educational, and winningly entertaining documentary streaming outlets should be fighting for.