Techno’s PLURific, ecstasy-fueled heyday is as deserving of an elegy as any other past-its-prime pop moment, but in spite of Happy Life’s premise—the owner of a dance-music store tries to put together an “old-school rave” to save his fading business from going under—the film doesn’t seem all that into the subculture it attempts to wryly nostalgize. Its aging man-child hero, Tom McCaffrey—first shown rising at the crack of noon and walking down the street in a neon-green T-shirt and matching headphones, as though he somehow skipped the last decade—uses the scene’s neo-hippie vocabulary of positivity and utopia, but he’s a joyless pedant whose enthusiasm for the music to which he’s so devoted is expressed through tiresome lecturing. “I know more about dance music than you or anyone here!” he yells at an uncaring bouncer who won’t let him into a party. Later, he ramps up to asking his parents for money by monologuing at them about the Detroit scene until his mom breaks in to suggest he write a book.
It’s perilously easy for fond looks back to tip over into embittered grumblings about whatever one is into no longer being relevant to up-and-coming generations. Happy Life was executive-produced by Abel Ferrara, who’s done his own chronicling of eras passing, both fiction (Go Go Tales) and non- (Chelsea On The Rocks). Happy Life, written and directed by his former assistant Michael M. Bilandic, doesn’t have Ferrara’s warm appreciation for rowdy history, nor a sharp sense of satire to fill that gap. When a pair of hipsters wander into McCaffrey’s store, one sneers at his recommendation of a trip-hop album by saying “Maybe I’ll just download it on the Internet for free.” It’s such a strange, outdated point to make that he might as well add “on Napster!” (And what self-respecting hipster would scoff at vinyl?) The film fumbles its best and most stinging idea—that a rave McCaffrey is excited to find is being thrown by a hip magazine is actually intended as an ironic retro novelty. The roughness of Happy Life’s production values and the inconsistency of its amateur actors (the most comfortable person to appear onscreen is VJ Matt Pinfield, in a cameo as a guy forced to sell his record collection for cash) would be forgivable if it showed any heart, but this low-budget ramble about techno’s glory days instead inspires relief that things have moved on.