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Published: 2004/05/29
by Benjy Eisen

RISEThe Story of Rave Outlaw Disco Donnie

Rave culture like Phish culture, like Grateful Dead culture, like Burning Man culture, like fraternity culture is pretty darn difficult to capture adequately and accurately. It is a culture that has to be experienced to be understood and understood before it can be captured. Thus, a film like RISE has an implicit challenge, for the viewer must already be familiar with the scene before the scene can mean anything on film. Unless of course it has a genius filmmaker and illuminating characters. RISE has neither of those, although the film is not a complete waste.
Its first major mistake is that the director, Julie Drazen, made a poor selection in choosing her subjects. Whereas ravers tend to be creative, passionate, off-kilter, interesting characters, Drazen focuses particularly on two high school students who look like they could be on their way to a study session in the library rather than an all-night rave. At one horrific point, our boy dismally discusses what he likes to wear at raves a t-shirt instead of baggy club wear (for comfort’s sake). Like, no way dude!
Furthermore, if someone unfamiliar with the scene was to watch this film, they would immediately draw the following conclusion about raves: that everyone there takes drugs even though everyone there likes to point out that not everyone there takes drugs.
Drazen focuses on interviews with these subjects as opposed to shadowing them, and what little glimpses we have of the actual rave parties are dismissive at best. Where are the kids with the sick dance moves? Where is the fantasy-world ambiance? Where is the art of turntablism exposed?
Yet this documentary has a treatment to it: it is supposed to be "the story of rave outlaw Disco Donnie." If you didn’t get that from this review so far, my apologies, but I didn’t get that either until at least halfway through the film. And I had to be reminded of it several times by reading the back of the box.
Ah, Disco Donnie. Truly someone worth making a documentary about. I’m not kidding. Here is a party promoter of quality. Somebody that quite honestly should be the national spokesperson for the scene. He’s genuine, charismatic, likable, and a major player his raves at the State Theater in New Orleans (where this film takes place) are legendary, even outside of the immediate scene.
When Disco Donnie became the national example, after a raid in which the cops busted him on the bogus R.A.V.E. act, it wasn’t surprising. After all, he was one of the most visible and successful rave promoters in the country. But as good of an example as he was, it also sent a message out about the law itself: It’s bullshit. It stinks worse than a grandmother’s dead body after three months of decay in an unventilated apartment in Houston.
And that is where the true value of the film comes in. Sure, everybody is on drugs and everybody denies it and then finally admits it in the end, but Disco Donnie doesn’t aid or abet that by throwing parties. These kids are going to take ecstasy whether they’re going to a rave or to an all-night diner. If anything, a responsible, head-on-his-shoulders promoter like Donnie is giving them a safe environment to be young and have fun and experiment in. He’s keeping them off the streets of New Orleans. While RISE is unsuccessful in illuminating what the rave scene truly looks like, it at least makes a strong case for Disco Donnie and an even stronger case against the R.A.V.E. act.
Of course, for music fans who like raves for the music, RISE is both exciting and a bit of a disappointment. We don’t really get to see extended clips of superstar DJs such as Paul Oakenfold or Paul Van Dyke doing their thing, despite appearances. We learn little about them or their craft. However, Drazen did make one wise decision for her documentary and that was to bring Josh Wink on board as musical director. Naturally, the soundtrack is just about killer.

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