The Neon Future is bright
A desire to carry the weight of the family name drives Steve Aoki to stand out in the Netflix documentary ‘I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead’.
Amid bouncing bodies and flying cakes, Steve Aoki would bring fans to their knees with his godlike magnetism if they weren’t so caught up in the moment waiting for the beat to drop.
One year he played upwards of 300 concerts all over the world. The Dim Mak Records founder has DJ residencies in Ibiza and Las Vegas and closed mega festival Tomorrowland numerous times. All this along with regularly releasing singles, if not the occasional album. Perhaps one of his most impressive feats is that “cake” is a verb because of him, as in, “Cake me, Steve Aoki!”
While Aoki seems to achieve the impossible, the documentary “I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead” does even more so. It presents the superstar as a totally relatable human.
This Netflix Original filmed leading up to the release of Aoki’s “Neon Future” albums is an origin story. Directed by Justin Krook, it explores seeking acceptance and approval, a narrative about growing up Japanese American, a portrait of a family.
Zeroing in on footage of a pool party-turned-club at which Aoki is the main attraction, the film opens with how we’ve come to know him. We hear quips about his legendary place in the electronic music movement from the likes of fellow DJs Tiesto, Diplo, Afrojack, and more.
“I think Steve’s a force of nature,” DJ Pete Tong says. “He’s a larger than life character.”
“I don’t know how he can be in a rowboat out in the middle of a crowd and DJ,” DJ Bentley says in genuine awe as Aoki crowd surfs in an inflatable boat.
It then pulls back from the mad rush of the music scene, drawing viewers into much more intimate frames. Understated, these softer moments are the film’s most captivating. Aoki skateboarding through his old Newport Beach stomping grounds on hot asphalt under palm trees. Walking past the steele waves of a moody beach. Somberly visiting his father’s grave with his family. Strolling around a quiet high school campus and chatting with his now wife Tiernan Cowling.
These shots wrap around interviews with people from his childhood that feel just telling enough and never invasive.
“My mother raised us in Japanese culture in an American setting,” his brother Kevin Aoki reminisces.
“He was stuck in this whitewashed world. He didn’t have Asian peers of his own that he could connect with,” says his childhood friend Dan Sena.
It was because of this that Aoki was unfairly excluded at school, occasionally to painful effect.
“Growing up I was like, which clique can I be a part of? And I tried a bunch,” Aoki recounts to Cowling as they walk together. He struggled to find a place, recalling a particular incident while playing badminton when someone started to harass him.
“There was a tirade of racial slurs,” he tells Cowling.
Subsequently listening to and watching Aoki act out the verbal abuse is chilling. It brings back all the sting of adolescent bullying, but compounds it with the pointed alienation of racism.
“I was just so angry, just so angry that his friends were sitting there laughing at me, that they’re all allowing this and no one’s doing shit, man,” Aoki says. “No one’s doing shit.”
When Asian Americans often don’t get the sorts of screen time they deserve in pop culture, it’s cathartic to see and hear an icon recount his experience in such a raw way.
“I wanted to be a popular kid,” he remembers. “I wanted everyone to like me. I wanted to fit in.”
This hasn’t ever been an option for Aoki, but standing out is. It was something that Aoki’s legendary father excelled at, and he wants to follow in his footsteps.
Sweet family photos capture the fleeting moments Aoki spent with his oldest siblings and parents, before they divorced. As these flash by, we hear stories of how the late Rocky Aoki was huge, see the media that immortalized him from appearances with Oprah and Regis Philbin.
An Olympian wrestler from Japan, he made New York his home and worked as an ice cream man until he had saved enough to open his first restaurant. It turned out to be the first in a chain that now has more than 100 restaurants worldwide.
“When I came to this country nine years ago I had a dream,” Rocky Aoki says in an old commercial. “Now Benihanas are everywhere.”
With them came flaming onion volcanoes, spinning eggs sliced clean in half, an entirely fresh presentation of surf and turf. This set a new standard for entertainment and performance, a fresh tale about the American Dream.
Gaining titles as a world backgammon champion and in offshore boat racing also kept his father occupied, as did flying a hot air balloon from Japan to California. It often took him away from his family resulting in an absence that Aoki acutely feels.
“It’s very Japanese, that kind of drive and ambition and work ethic,” Aoki reflects.
“He had such a major influence or lack thereof in Steve’s life. (It) drove Steve to want to strive to something greater than any other human being wants to be,” Cowling says.
The documentary’s climax dramatizes this beautifully. Parallel shots cut between Aoki and his father in their respective theaters: an unexpected concert venue for the biggest show of Aoki’s career, the packed streets of Downtown Los Angeles, and the grills of a Benihana.
We see Aoki work up his audience spanning three city blocks in his hometown as Rocky Aoki impresses diners with artful flips of food. Rocky Aoki’s speedboat skirts out of the water, and Aoki rises out of the clouds of a fog machine, both seemingly levitating under supernatural forces. In separate shots both spout fountains of champagne and bow to their audiences.
Rocky Aoki died before he could see his son perform at the monumental LAoki event. However, Aoki’s mother Chizura Kobayashi says, “Rocky would probably say, ‘That’s my son.’”
Had Aoki actually succeeded in fitting in, he might never have reached the epic achievements that would make his family so proud. Here’s to a failure worth celebrating.