Ever since robots took the places of four German guys in red shirts and black ties, critics have considered electronic music to be a faceless genre devoid of the celebrities that infest the overground landscape of popular music. But if the producers of Richie Hawtin: Pioneers of Electronic Music are to be believed, the techno underground has always had its own superstar with Richie Hawtin, the legendary DJ who throws eight-hour bacchanalia when not starting up seminal techno labels like Plus 8 and Minus, or secluding himself in his studio as the minimal techno innovator best known as Plastikman. At the very least, Pioneers of Electronic Musicthe first volume in a series of DVD documentaries, with the next volume spotlighting Underground Resistance; regards Hawtin as someone noteworthy enough to warrant the standard documentary package. But as if keeping with the minimalist aesthetics of Hawtin’s Plastikman project, the narrative of Pioneers of Electronic Music is bare, though not to the same effect of the best of his music.
With help from the talking heads of family, friends, peers, and the (plastik)man himself, Pioneers of Electronic Music is a hagiographic document that succinctly traces Hawtin’s life, from the English-born musician’s formative years in Windsor, Ontario, with countless trips across the border to Detroit to immerse himself in its flourishing yet underground techno scene, to his current abode in Berlin. During his Windsor/Detroit years, he apprenticed under techno stalwart Jeff Mills and rubbed elbows with Derrick May, which eventually bore Hawtin’s Plastikman project, and, after a brief exile from the US during the wake of the Oklahoma City bombing, and later a stopover in New York, the film ends with Richie das Berliner, where the mature Hawtin, at the behest of trance German DJ Sven Väth ironically chucks his cerebral image for Dionysian indulgence, e.g., stagediving at his DJ gigs, or spinning at Ibiza, of all places. (In one of the bonus interviews included on the DVD, Väth takes credit for convincing Hawtin to ditch his once-trademark glasses for contact lenses.)
Insight-wise, that’s about it for the documentary. Although Pioneers of Electronic Music historicizes Hawtin’s early career, devoting more than half of the screen-time to rep for the original Detroit crews that created techno. It glosses over both the controversy of a white kid bringing the originally black art form to suburban white kids, and the fact that he was hated by the Detroit establishment for getting what seemed like, according to Mays, “opportunities and advantages that others didn’t get.” At the most, the film says that Hawtin kept the techno fire burning in Detroit while Mills, Mays, et al were DJing in Europe.
What’s more, the film all but ignores the post-millennial electronic landscape, especially glaring because of Hawtin’s integral role in shaping microhouse (the music that all the cool German kids listen to today). Even stranger, the documentary excludes almost his entire musical output after the ambient Concept series, relegating a few of his post-’98 compositions to the soundtrack. Thus, no mention of the two Plastikman albums (Consumed and Artifakts [BC]) most influential to microhouse and barely any exposition about his DE9 series. Music as a topic dissolves from the film, and merely contextualizes Hawtin’s new social life, wherein he picnics in the park with musician friends instead of secluding himself in a studio to obsess over a 4/4 beat.
And on the subject of Hawtin’s obsessiveness, the documentary-proper barely even mentions the vaunted perfectionism and the microscopic ear for sound that made his music appealing to clubbers and armchair listeners alike. His perfectionism is mentioned, almost in passing, in the bonus interview with Hawtin’s mother. She recounts how little Richie would hole up in his home studio installed beneath his parents’ bedroom: she and his father were kept awake till three or four in the morning as they listened to him composing “the same old beats, the same old beats,” clearly a minimalist even then. “Dah-dah dah-dah,” she reenacts for the camera, “dah-dah dah-dah, dah-dah dah-dah-DAH.” Though she failed to find such experiences “too much fun at all”, that didn’t stop her from lending her son a hand as a doorman at some of his warehouse parties. On more than one occasion, Mrs. Hawtin had to turn away uninvited partiers who tried to get in by claiming that they were a cousin or even his brother.
Other bonus interviews on the DVD are more hit-and-miss. Väth, John Aquaviva, and May are among the people featured in these interviews, all of whom also appear in the documentary-proper. Aquaviva, who frequently collaborates with Hawtin, recounts how his Italian heritage helped a young Hawtin learn to appreciate food, while May explains his tense relationship with Hawtin as the latter essentially being “the same motherfucker” as the Detroit legend. The bonus material on Pioneers of Electronic Music is rounded out by grainy footage of a live gig from ’90 that he performed as Cybersonik with Aquaviva, and an extremely dated video (read: bad CGI) for the Plastikman track “Plastique”.
At its core, Richie Hawtin: Pioneers of Electronic Music strives to establish its subject as an Important Musician Worthy of Memorializing, and as a result, the film becomes more of a valentine to Hawtin than a document into his life. But while its viewers are left out as mere spectators into this exercise in onanism, the incidental details that seep through the film — such as his robotics engineer dad designing some of the equipment he uses onstage — warm up the austere minimalist so that techno is finally given a real human face, however fleeting its glimpse.