The Playlist review – stick with it for the brain-breakingly weird ending

Netflix tells the origin story of Spotify, but Daniel Ek – the most powerful man in music – is no Steve Jobs. Still, it’s worth watching for the jolting discomfort you’ll feel after the finale

Thanks to The Social Network, tech biopics now tend to work from the same blueprint. There is a startup, founded in a fog of resentment by a single obsessive, charismatic visionary. There is a battle to succeed, to show a world resistant to change what the future looks like. And then there is wild victory that comes at a price. For the most part, though, The Playlist (Netflix) avoids this blueprint.

A drama about the creation of Spotify, The Playlist has a perfectly willing visionary in Daniel Ek, the programmer who created the app and quickly became the most powerful man in the global music industry. But Spotify is a Swedish company, and The Playlist is a Swedish show, and that means a little light socialism is in order.

Episode one, for instance, is all about Ek, played with tremendous stroppiness by Fortitude’s Edvin Endre. When we meet him, he is trapped in a job he is too good for, hanging out with his mother and being told he is too undereducated for a job at Google. We see him take this frustration and use it to create Spotify, despite widespread obstruction from the music industry, climaxing with a heartrending sequence of him and his programmers finally telling the world about his magical toy that lets you listen to any song for free. If this was a US show, you sense that this would be the entire series. Then, in its dying gasp, another character turns to the camera and says “What the hell? That’s not how it happened.”

Immediately we have a much more interesting show. The Playlist has six episodes, all told from the perspective of someone integral to Spotify’s success. Episode two is about a music executive who, terrified by filesharing’s gutting of the industry he loves, relents and gets into bed with Spotify. There is an episode about the app’s chief coder, who battled to strive for a perfection that had never existed before. An episode about the lawyer who laid the groundwork for compromise with record labels. An episode about the money guy. Spotify wasn’t created by one man alone. An entire team was responsible for its success and they each get to put their argument across.

The Playlist
Putting their arguments across … The Playlist Photograph: Netflix

You can see why the producers wanted to tackle the series like this. Ek, at least in this portrayal , is no Mark Zuckerberg or Steve Jobs. He’s more reasonable, more identifiably human. Perhaps it’s because this wasn’t written by Aaron Sorkin, but there is no violent psychodrama propelling him along. The smart thing was always going to involve sharing the narrative around.

However, this approach makes The Playlist a frustratingly bitty watch. When Akira Kurosawa’s thriller Rashômon used this trick, it worked because it was a life or death story. Here, it means we have to sit through hour after hour of quibbles about the finer details of the thing on your phone that lets you listen to podcasts. Some episodes are undoubtedly stronger than others. The second, for example, works hard to put Spotify’s rise in a broader cultural context; we see record labels dying on the vine, looking for something – anything – to keep them afloat before Ek breezes in and shows them the future of greatest damage limitation. Against something this sweeping, it’s hard to see the episode where the CEO realises he might be neurodiverse as anything other than filler.

Spotify is one of those apps – along with most products made by Meta – that people never feel entirely jazzed about using. Convenience, and its market saturation, mean that we are all forced to hush our misgivings about its exploitation of musicians whenever we open it. Luckily, this is where the focus of the final episode lies. The Ek we see here is Charles Foster Kane, brittle and aloof and so insulated by wealth that he has lost sight of what he ever wanted Spotify to be. In contrast, there’s a talented musician who can no longer pay her rent with the royalties she receives from streaming. It’s a necessary note for the series to strike, and one you wish took up more airtime.

One thing I won’t spoil is how the series ends. This is because it is incredibly, brain-breakingly weird, and anyone who sits through all six hours of The Playlist deserves to feel the same jolting discomfort that I did. All in all, The Playlist is a worthy exercise about how much the tech industry loves to corrupt good intentions. I can’t wait for the series Netflix makes about itself.


Stuart Heritage

The GuardianTramp

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