You never learn how the word "rave" came to embody the psychedelic, technology-driven dance phenomenon in the documentary Better Living Through Circuitry. It's probably one of those hopelessly square questions that, once asked, only proves that you'll never understand. But "rave" seems an inapt description of the peaceable culture it describes, which centers around all-night, floating parties fueled by dance, drugs and techno music, a trend that suggests a high-tech, millennial version of hippie hedonism. As a kind of "sampling" of the rave scene, Better Living Through Circuitry proves intermittently interesting but won't win many converts. Despite the tight editing of a myriad interviews, music tracks and location shots, Circuitry is too superficial to edify the uninitiated.
Raves have been held for years, and Circuitry comes on the heels of two fiction films about the lifestyle, Human Traffic and Groove (not to mention Go in 1999). Circuitry director Jon Reiss, best known for helming Nine Inch Nails videos, was a newcomer to rave culture when he began the documentary, much of which was shot on digital cameras smuggled into the all-night events.
Reiss interviews many of the techno scene's hottest musicians and DJs (here the terms are virtually interchangeable) as well as the turn-of-the-millennium's teenyboppers, peaceniks and tech-heads who make up their audience. The parties, frequently held at one-time-only venues like unused warehouses, entail dancing 'til dawn to technobeats while swinging accessories like glow-sticks. To an outsider, raves evoke Grateful Dead concerts or those "electric kool-aid acid tests" of the Merry Pranksters, only with electronic music as the soundtrack and Ecstasy as the hallucinogen of choice.
One perky fan shows us her "kit" for attending a rave, including bottled water, candy and a backpack to keep the hands free for dancing. She doesn't mention drugs, and in fact Better Living Through Circuitry sits on the subject of substances until about an hour into the 85-minute picture, which seems like burying the lead. The film doesn't explain that the prevalent lollipops and pacifiers are not fashion statements but means to counteract "E's" mouth-drying side effects. To his credit, Reiss doesn't whitewash the danger of overdoses and includes a young user who matter-of-factly states his agenda by saying, "It's no fun doing that stuff at home."
But the documentary clearly doesn't want to equate raves with drugs, and some teetotaling witnesses convincingly argue that the music and dancing is so potent you can share in the mass euphoria without chemical short-cuts. Circuitry unabashedly advocates the intoxicating powers of techno music, which is laid down wall-to-wall on the score. We meet star DJs like Keoki, Roni Size and Spooky, whose work can be hard to distinguish if you're not already familiar with techno. An exception is Electric Skychurch, a more traditional band with ethereal, "languageless" vocals.
The "sonic sculptors" can be intriguing talkers, though, with the film's chief raconteur being Genesis P'Orridge, a queeny, scary-toothed pioneer of electronic dance culture who traces raves to "acid house" dance music in 1986. Electronic musicians like Kraftwerk founder Wolfgang Flür speak of their early synthesizers or Mr. Microphones with the rapturous nostalgia of Eric Clapton remembering his first guitar. Amusingly, the studios of musicians like the Crystal Method are so overflowing with computer equipment that they more resemble hacker dens than places for making music.
Circuitry's main interest lies in the way people interact with computerized tools and musical instruments, and some of the talking heads compare the sampling of multiple audio tracks to "ancestor" worship and the do-it-yourself egalitarianism to punk rock. Not surprisingly, the heady stuff gets laid on thick, recklessly using words like "texts," "perception" and "spirituality" and making the inevitable comparisons between shamanism and club culture. But while you question assertions like the idea individuals are "empowered" by being part of a mob (albeit a happy mob), you don't doubt that the rave experience involves a gestalt more powerful than the sum of its parts.
By the zillionth time Reiss cuts to a kaleidoscopic computer graphic or yet another blissed-out dancer, Better Living Through Circuitry feels redundant, like an MTV profile running long. Ultimately the documentary proves less convincing than self-congratulatory, and though you watch it with curiosity, you never fall into the groove.