The new Steve Aoki documentary on Netflix, I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead, is 79 minutes long. That’s quite a long time to spend with a DJ if you find his antics to be insufferable. So is this a movie strictly for fans of the cake-throwing, raft-riding, EDM-slinging showman, or is there something in it for the sceptics too?
There’s no doubt I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead is an Aoki-sanctioned product designed to portray him in the best possible light. His longtime manager Matt Colon is one of the listed producers, and the talking heads are exclusively Aoki’s friends, family, business partners and fellow DJs. (Or more accurately, the fellow DJs ones who sing his praises.)
In that way, it’s exactly like the documentaries made by both David Guetta and the Swedish House Mafia in recent years. They’re all slick, big budget exercises in myth-making, injected with enough “real” moments of tension or bad behaviour to distract from the one-sidedness.
That’s not to say, however, that I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead is without merit. In fact, there are interesting insights peppered throughout those 79 minutes. Here are a few things we learnt from Aoki’s feature-length ode to Aoki.
Any Steve Aoki documentary would have to deal with the DJ’s divisive place in dance music, and I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead gets it over with in just a few breezy minutes. Director Justin Krook shows us a flurry of internet comments raining down hell on Aoki, then cuts to the man himself shrugging it off without really addressing why people take so vehemently against him.
This “haters” segment is of course offset by an opening montage of DJs including Afrojack, Tiësto and Diplo praising their friend. There’s also a great comment from US radio personality Jason Bentley that’s (probably?) meant as a compliment. “I don’t know how he could be in a rowboat in the middle of a crowd and be DJing,” Bentley marvels. Some might say that’s exactly the problem.
The documentary takes us into Aoki’s whirlwind 2014, as he announces his Neon Future album and an ambitious show at New York’s iconic Madison Square Garden. But while the build-up to that gig gives the movie its forward momentum, the real story is about family.
Steve’s late father Hiroaki “Rocky” Aoki was a larger-than-life personality, who emigrated from Japan to the US, where he established the restaurant chain Benihana. In a TV interview, he listed family as his third priority in life after business and health. As Steve’s sister Devon bluntly puts it, “He got absolutely no help from his father.”
Rocky was known for his daredevil stunts, including a nearly fatal boat race in San Francisco and a high-risk hot-air balloon trip across the Pacific Ocean. That need for constant adrenaline was passed onto his son, even though Rocky and Steve had a distant relationship. We hear from Aoki’s girlfriend Tiernan Cowling that he doesn’t like to be alone with his thoughts, which explains his 300-plus shows a year and shall we say “hyperactive” approach to DJing.
Perhaps the most interesting element of I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead is the insight into the burgeoning LA electro scene where Aoki made his name. After immersing himself in the world of hardcore and punk during his university years, Aoki established Dim Mak Records, then found it a scrappy headquarters in LA.
From there, he established Dim Mak Tuesdays, a club night that welcomed the likes of Daft Punk’s Thomas Bangalter, Boys Noize, The Bloody Beetroots and many more into its sweaty DJ booth. According to Black Eyed Peas leader will.i.am, “Since then, there hasn’t been anything else like it.” (But hey, why would we trust will.i.am to know anything?)
During that time, Aoki’s DJing “guru” was DJ AM. According to manager Matt Colon, Aoki was a heavy drinker in those days, but all that stopped after DJ AM’s untimely death from a drug overdose in 2009, which came a year after Rocky Aoki’s death. Now Aoki’s rider is stacked with alkaline waters, not Grey Goose bottles.
While most of I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead focuses on Aoki’s relationship with his father, it’s his mother Chizuru who emerges as the documentary’s MVP. While Rocky was largely absent, we learn that Chizuru was unfailingly supportive of whatever Steve wanted to do, even if it included playing EDM and throwing cake at fans. When she turns up at her son’s show, awed by it all, the most hardened Aoki doubters will still want to raise a glass to mums everywhere.
When Aoki’s Madison Square Garden show falls through (not because of disappointing ticket sales—promise!), he instead decides to do a free “homecoming” show in LA. He meets with the Mayor of Los Angeles Eric Garcetti, who agrees to cordon off some downtown blocks for the show, setting us up for the movie’s big finale.
We see Aoki surveying the scene before gates open, and it’s a well-staffed, secure-looking, city-approved set-up. Despite all the signs to the contrary, Aoki declares his street party to be “punk rock, man”. You’ll probably groan, but I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead shows its star as somehow impervious to our eye-rolls. You could certainly argue there are DJs more deserving of a documentary than Steve Aoki, but it’s hard to knock the guy’s hustle. As far as feature-length DJ puff pieces go, this one turns out to be surprisingly enjoyable.
I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead is available to stream now on Netflix. You can watch the trailer below.