The new documentary about superstar DJ Steve Aoki takes direct aim at one of the most persistent preconceptions about his line of work: that it doesn’t require much effort. In fact, the origins of Aoki’s ferocious work ethic — he’s played over 300 shows in a single year — is the subject of I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead (Netflix), which marvels at the grind and sweat it takes to give others a good time.
Aoki’s hero — and the man he’s tried to make proud all his life — is his father Rocky, an Olympic wrestler and the self-made millionaire founder of the Benihana chain. (The senior Aoki, who died in 2008, also set world records in backgammon, boat-racing, and hot-air ballooning.) It’s an intimidating legacy to live up to, even if Rocky had been an attentive and affectionate father, which he himself admits (in archival footage) he was not. Director Justin Krook begins rolling the cameras as Aoki prepares for his biggest show yet: a 2014 event at Madison Square Garden that’ll ultimately be canceled.
Streaming on Friday, August 19, Sleep was obviously meant to be a celebratory companion piece to that MSG show — a victory lap of a documentary, as so many filmic artist portraits are today. But the scrapping of that would-be milestone doesn’t make Sleep any less deferentially polite or emotionally shallow. Running on empty even at 80 minutes, the film squanders multiple opportunities — to explain what Aoki’s work is, to locate his place in the fractured (and infighting) EDM world, and to shine a light on the racial identity of this rare Asian-American performer enjoying mainstream success. (Aoki doesn’t speak very much about his Asianness, but this is a guy who recalls his father as “very Japanese” and who named his record company Dim Mak, after the “touch of death” that supposedly killed his childhood hero Bruce Lee.)
Instead, Sleep mostly captures the Jesus-haired, Gumby-lean Aoki on the go: riding planes, taking meetings, jumping into crowds, and throwing cakes at his audience (the DJ’s signature move). Constantly slowing, fast-forwarding, or cutting, Krook’s camera presents Aoki’s life as a kind of music video — stylized and a bit surreal. The director presents Aoki’s paternal negligence as a Great Tragedy, but millions of kids can probably claim similar childhoods — comfortable, suburban, bullied for their race, with less-than-great parents (though his mom seems wonderful) — and most of them didn’t turn out to be Grammy-nominated musicians. If anything, Aoki’s story is one of amazing luck, despite his father’s distance: A talented artist finds his calling in his late teens, figures out how to make bank off his passion right at the time that that become lucrative, and now determines his own fate through his improbable success, with multimillion-dollar homes in Vegas and Ibiza. The film’s “little boy lost” narrative, as deeply as its subject might feel it, doesn’t quite fit.
Sleep’s other strain of pathos derives from Aoki’s friendship with DJ AM (Adam Goldstein), who died in 2009. Aoki credits the loss of his friend with his sobriety, but the segments remembering DJ AM feel mostly gratuitous, as do the talking-head snippets with fellow DJs/producers Diplo, Travis Barker, Will.i.am, and Joel and Benji Madden. The crisis after the cancellation of the Madison Square Garden show is quickly resolved, and accusations of Aoki’s “sellout” status are never elaborated on beyond “can’t please everyone.” Eventually, Sleep slows down and loses its beat. The documentary shows us the laser lights and purple smoke and multicolor confetti and streamers the DJ uses at his shows, but never quite evinces the sense of showmanship that runs through the Aoki family line.