When former U.S. President Barack Obama began normalizing relations with Cuba in 2014, it opened up several artistic avenues for a country that had been an effective pariah since the 1960s. Austin Peters’s scrappy documentary looks at one such event: a free concert performed in Havana in 2015 by EDM supergroup Major Lazer. Comprised of the trio of Diplo, Walshy Fire and Jillionaire, Major Lazer had already entertained ecstatic audiences in troubled parts of the world like Caracas and Islamabad. The Havana concert, however, would be something special, both because of its political import and the many unknowns involved (the Castro government had never before permitted a performance by an American act with this high a profile).
As lazers go, more minor than major.
Peters and his crew had a very brief window to prep the documentary (only three weeks from approval to stage show) and the slapdashness shows. The concert itself takes up only a small portion of the runtime, most of it filmed onstage in catch-as-catch-can style, the apparent energy of the 500,000-plus crowd barely registering. (Funniest and most telling moment comes when the primarily young audience stands stock still after Diplo and company needle-drop House of Pain’s “Jump Around” — not so ubiquitous a hip hop anthem in Cuba as elsewhere.) The whole performance comes off as a you-had-to-be-there sort of thing, and it’s especially egregious in light of Jonathan Demme’s great Netflix doc Justin Timberlake + The Tennessee Kids, which conveys the very elating sense of pop-communality that Give Me Future consistently grasps at and fumbles.
Peters is interested in more than just the music, however. There are plenty of behind-the-scenes glimpses of the Major Lazer performers and crew as they set up the venue — the symbolically charged Jose Marti Anti-Imperialist Platform, site of many pro-Cuba/anti-American protests (not to mention a 2005 concert by Audioslave). Since the performance is entirely self-funded and the group has promised to use only Cuban materials and workers, the chance for miscommunication and mistake is that much more pronounced. Though for all the talk of things going wrong, the biggest drama arrives when two crewmembers find themselves at not-so-tense odds over the use of an XLR cable.
More interesting are the sequences that explore how modern-day Cubans become literate in the arts, especially in a country that still puts stringent limits on access to the internet and other virtual resources. There’s a particularly fascinating section, shot through with Citizenfour-esque paranoia, about “El Paquete Semanal,” a weekly digital packet, usually curated by one to two people, that is uploaded to a one-terabyte hard drive and then shared to the country at large through unofficial channels. “Paquete,” as the Cuban populace calls it, includes everything from telenovelas to Game of Thrones to, of course, the latest in music, which is precisely how Major Lazer became such a big draw in the country. Diplo, Walshy Fire and Jillionaire’s intent, so they say, is to “[make] the world smaller by making the party bigger.” But Give Me Future only comes alive when it focuses on the underlying forces that allow the trio’s radical sense of fun to take hold.
Director: Austin Peters
Producers: Jack Turner, Wesley Pentz, Jay Peterson
Executive Producers: Kevin Kusatsu, Todd Lubin, Andrew Mcinnes, Noah Rothman, Kristin Patrick, Ellen Healy Pietropaoli, Garrett English, Daniel Montalto
Editors: Sheila Shirazi, Ezra Paek, Zac Stuart-Pontier
Cinematographers: Deering Regan, Eric Yue, Sam Shimizu-Jones
Composer: Ben Flesch
Premieres: Saturday, January 21st, 9:30pm (Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center); Friday, January 27th, 5:30pm (The Marc)