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CIMMFest Documentary Delves into the House Music Scene

By Emily Morris | April 19, 2013 10:28am | Updated on April 19, 2013 11:12am

CHICAGO — Chicago is well-known for pioneering styles of blues, jazz and rap, but perhaps fewer know of the beginnings of house music in the city.

The genre is explored in the documentary "Unconscious Therapy," created by first-time director Steven Harnell and scheduled to premiere at the Chicago International Music and Movies Festival in Logan Square Saturday night.

Harnell, whose day job is working mainly on commercial projects in Los Angeles, said he fell in love with house music in his hometown of Atlanta in the '90s.

"The songs that these guys played out in clubs wasn’t something that you could go out and find at a music store," said Harnell, 37. "You could never really hear it anywhere else."

To someone who loved listening to house music but didn't know how it was made or where it came from, "it was like this subconscious attraction," he said. He said he wanted to make a film "to educate people about it, including myself."

The legend goes that the genre, which rose out of the ashes of disco in the '80s, got its name when New York DJ Frankie Knuckles moved to Chicago and began working at the Warehouse on the Near West Side.

Before Knuckles knew it, other city clubs were playing music they called "house" after hearing it at the club, Knuckles said in the film. It soon spread across the country and then to Europe, where house music has perhaps become the most popular.

The dance tunes are typically produced by mixing at least two tracks of well-known or original music simultaneously and adding effects. The type that started locally is sometimes referred to as Chicago house music or deep house music, and variations exist all over the world.

"It’s still like electronic music," Harnell said. "But it’s more soulful. [DJs use] more guitars or instruments and more organic vocal stuff."

Harnell teamed up with then-girlfriend and now-wife Tracy Harnell in 2006 and spent years making the film on a small budget and between working full-time jobs.

They rounded up every house DJ they could from all over, including local legends like Knuckles, Heather, Collette, Derrick Carter, LegoMark Farina and Sneak, many of whom said on camera that they weren't even sure how the music got its start in Chicago.

Many of the local DJs said they got to know one another by meeting at vinyl record stores and clubs like Gramaphone Records in Lakeview and Wrigleyville's Smart Bar.

And even if its popularity comes in waves, Chicago remains a special place for house, the Harnells said.

"Anywhere that something starts is a huge passion for people, and you can feel their passion in the air," said Tracy Harnell, 37, the film's producer. "It’s like their child. They’ve raised it and nurtured it and they keep it going and keep it thriving."

The movie was "gathering dust" for years as he and his wife started a family in Los Angeles, but Steven Harnell said their film finally found a home at CIMMFest 2013. The festival blends music with film and includes performances and screenings.

Harnell said one criticism he's received is that there may be a lack of conflict in the film. But that's because of the general harmony among the makers and listeners of house music, regardless of their differences, he said.

"People that enjoy it and love it are not divided," he said.

"Unconscious Therapy" premieres at 10 p.m. Saturday at the Logan Square Theatre. Note: Tickets have recently sold out. CIMMFest runs through Sunday.