Tracking Angles

As Groove introduces itself to an E-anxious mass audience, the real thrill is in its home-grown music

"It happens at least once a party," says the fictional rave promoter Ernie in Groove, when he's queried on why he puts his freedom from prosecution on the line each time he throws an underground warehouse party. "Someone comes up to me and says, 'Thank you very much for making this happen. I really needed this. It meant something to me.'

"Then they nod. And I nod back."

Wade Randolph Hampton first got the nod as a DJ back in 1986. "I rented out the local Sheraton Hotel in far North Dallas for our high school graduation party," he recalls. "We spent down the last of our class fund. I was playing mix tapes from other people in the downtown Dallas scene and mixing them together. Everyone was having a great time. By the end of the night, the principal had come up to me and said, 'That was very nice Wade.'"

The nod.

Hampton (aka DJ WishFM) is the music supervisor for one of the summer's most eagerly anticipated indie films: writer/director Greg Harrison's Groove, a perceptive, intimate look inside one night at an underground San Francisco rave. Ernie, played by Steve Van Wormer, is the guy who brings a single night of heaven down to Earth for the willing participants. The film, which opens Thursday, has been riding a wave of buzz that began at this year's Sundance Film Festival. Sold for $1.5 million to Sony Pictures Classics, Groove arrives in theaters during what could be the most uncomfortable period in the history of rave culture. Damaging legislative assaults on dancing in Chicago and Toronto, a series of high-profile drug busts (including the seizure of nearly 500,000 hits of Ecstasy at SFO last month), and increased media attention to teenagers' participation in the all-night dance parties is driving an underground subculture above the surface in a battle for its existence and its livelihood.

But while the mainstream media will likely focus on Groove's honest portrayal of drug use at raves, a hopeful byproduct will be deserved attention to the music that has spawned the culture and made San Francisco one of the most fertile grounds for new music since the Summer of Love. Forget the uninformed comparisons to Saturday Night Fever; disco was already dead in the clubs by the time John Travolta became a household name. Electronic music -- house, trance, techno, jungle, and its many other subgenres -- is still evolving and morphing into new, powerful forms. As Hampton explains, Groove is to the nascent dance culture what the film Krush Groove was to hip hop -- a bridge from the underground to the mainstream.

John Digweed, the internationally recognized British DJ and producer who has both led and been a participant in this most recent musical renaissance, is the spiritual guru of Groove. A gay couple spend the length of the film trying to make it to the rave to celebrate the anniversary of their meeting at a Digweed show. And he appears in the film as himself, the late-arrival DJ whose appearance propels the rave's promoters back into action after the cops shut them down. E-mails go out, voice-mail messages are changed, and the dancers start to filter back to the warehouse: "Digweed's just arrived with a fresh crate of vinyl," Ernie exhorts. And the party kicks back in.

Digweed sees this as the perfect time for Groove's release and thinks audiences can put it into the right perspective. "The whole DJ explosion in America, which seems to have happened in the past six to 12 months, is amazing," he says. "We want people to find out more about the music. You need to experience it and find out what a DJ does during a set. It's giving people a taste of something, and from there they can make their decision [as to whether it's something they want to try]."

For the San Francisco DJs and producers who have been spinning at underground parties and public club weeklies for years, the film is an opportunity to spread their music and community to a much wider audience. Wicked, a crew of local DJs who have been promoting parties in San Francisco for nearly a decade, and who have helped to shape the recognizable sound of San Francisco house music, is well represented in Groove. Two compositions from Wicked's Garth appear in the film; one of his most recognizable tracks, 1996's "Twenty Minutes of Disco Glory," is remixed by Wicked pal Simon and is featured on the first of numerous soundtrack CDs for the film to be released by Kinetic/Reprise. Garth sees Groove as a goodwill ambassador for the Bay Area's thriving electronic music community. "It's going to do a lot for the dance scene across the States," he says. "There's no Hollywood glitz with this film -- it's about really regular people. I think it will bring the mainstream further into the dance music industry's core."

It was important for Greg Harrison to offer the San Francisco scene a platform from which to preen, promote, and dance its collective ass off. "I wrote the treatment in late 1996," Harrison says. "So much of it was about the music and how it sounded, and what the dance floor looked like when the music was really going off. It was an essential point of [my experience] that I wanted to capture." Harrison, a film editor who moved to the Bay Area from L.A. in 1994, entered the West Coast rave scene in its formative years, attending his first party in 1993 with college pal and future Groove star Van Wormer. He became a regular in the Bay Area scene and aligned himself with the Friends and Family rave collective and its diversely knit community rooted around the cultural mantra of PLUR: Peace, Love, Unity, Respect. As Harrison began writing the script, he started assembling all of the mix tapes he'd collected over the years. "I would go down to Spinelli's [now Tully's] on Irving with my laptop. I wrote the entire script with headphones on in the coffee shop, listening to DJ mix tapes -- mostly local house and trance," he says. "I thought they were going to kick me out for using all their electricity, but instead, after a while they started giving me free coffee." Again, the nod.

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