By Matt Mueller Culture Editor Published Jul 01, 2023 at 11:16 AM Photography: Dan Garcia

"Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny." The new "Mission Impossible." The combined forces of "Barbie" and "Oppenheimer." They all look like shameful Quibis in the face of the true and ultimate cinematic summer blockbuster experience that hit Milwaukee this weekend: ODESZA's Summerfest headliner set at the Amp on Friday night, a bombastic feast for the senses that felt like watching the trailers for every giant action movie on the year's release slate, all at the same time ... but with the occasional fireball and wall of flames exploding in front of you.


The word "epic" has been used and abused in recent years, to the point that it carries about the same weight and meaning as "the" these days. But ODESZA actually earned the descriptor Friday night, with an Amp show that was truly, mesmerizingly, enormously epic.

For those confused by the jumble of letters allegedly headlining the Amp, ODESZA is a Grammy-nominated EDM duo – made up of Harrison Mills and Clayton Knight – that's exploded in popularity over the past half-decade, mostly thanks to their legendary live shows. Featuring laser light shows, thunderous music and a fully sensory-exploding experience, the performances are seemingly spoken of in hushed reverent tones. With hype like that, it was hard not to walk into the Amp on Friday with dubious questions and an "OK prove it" attitude hovering in mind. Would ODESZA live up to the lofty buzz? And would Milwaukee show up for them at the Amp – not particularly a venue known for showcasing EDM at all, much less of this magnitude? 

The answer Friday night to both questions: a resounding yes, punctuated with jet-engine-like bursts of flame. Milwaukee definitely showed up for ODESZA, loudly filling at least 90 percent of the Amp – and ODESZA definitely showed out, living up to their reputation and scalding the Amp for 90 minutes with giant sound and fiery fury. 


They wouldn't take long to answer those questions, either. After a blinding flash and a CGI clip on the stage's giant screen – telling the saga of some future spartan seeing how things truly are and discovering alternate versions of one's self on a "Matrix"-esque journey through a mirror – Mills and Knight emerged on their raised stages, fists in the air before bursting into "This Version of You" and "Behind the Sun." No, literally bursting – as the stage ignited in fireballs and fireworks accompanying the tribal-sounding beat, eventually joined by a brassy trombone and trumpet player as well as a full eight-part drumline dressed like fireproofed "Squid Game" staff members, because there was more fire to come. It looked and sounded like "Gladiator" meets "Tron," and felt like we'd all mainlined a whole bombastic Olympics opening ceremony in three short minutes.

If the rest of the night couldn't top that initial synapse-frying sensory shock of seeing The Biggest Thing I'd Ever Seen, the EDM duo stayed damn near close to that high bar throughout the following impressive 87-some minutes. 

After that initial explosion, things settled into a more conventional EDM show energy – "settled" and "conventional" being comparative. No one could or would hold it against ODESZA, though, thanks to their early run of satisfying drops and danceable beats from "Love Letter," "Say My Name" and more, going from rollicking synthy raves to poppy Daft Punk-esque futuristic riffs. Plus, it wouldn't take long for things to crank back up to 11 and a half, with a laser light show blaring hypnotic beams up and down the stage and – of course – more fire. (If the air quality on the lakefront dipped back into smoky territory Friday night, it wasn't the Canadian wildfires' fault this time.)

Between Gryffin and Sofi Tukker in weekend one, the trend in EDM at Summerfest is: Clearly it's not enough to throw a good party with a good playlist. You have to put on an actual performance too. That clearly continued into ODESZA – and not only by cranking the pyrotechnics to levels even Spinal Tap couldn't fathom. Live performers regularly hopped on stage with the duo – from the trombone and trumpet players rotating in and out of songs, adding a brassy brashness to the tracks, to the thunderous drumline marching in formations while their glowing drums changed colors with the beat, playing what sounded like the awesome score to the coolest Hollywood action movie screening exclusively in the audience's heads. 


Several singers joined the musical maelstrom on stage throughout the night too – such as ethereal vocalist Charlie Houston, accompanying the crew for a brief mellow-by-their-standards respite with "Wide Awake," and Izzy Bizu, hopping on stage for "Forgive Me," the funkiest number of the night that transformed into a strutty club banger for the final stretch. Singer Naomi Wild also joined for some of the more chill pop segments of the night – though one of those quieter moments created one of the evening's most memorable moments. Wild, taking a pause during a piano-accompanied ballad "Higher Ground," to smilingly admire the crowd singing along and putting up their phone lights all their own, no prodding required. Even when subdued, ODESZA's show managed to feel like something special. 

Who am I kidding, though; the word "subdued" was banned from the Amp last night and launched out of a confetti cannon into Lake Michigan. Those dance-worthy pop detours only seemed quiet as compared to the gargantuan sound and show of the rest of the set, running a full span of EDM sound from a funky dance number that transformed into a strutty club banger in the final third to a crunchy industrial number that wouldn't sound out of place in the opening credits of "Se7en." 


If it seems like I've made a lot of movie references in this review, that's because ODESZA sounds so cinematic – even if you removed the big screen-level bombast. A collection of songs at the end, in particular – a muscular club march, the drumline portrayed as knights on screen, followed by a galactic-tinged number with planets as the backdrop  – played so mammoth, theatrical and feverishly propulsive, it was like the audience was living inside a "Lord of the Rings" movie, Zack Snyder film and Hans Zimmer's discography all at once. (And really, if they're not doing an original score a la Daft Punk in "Tron: Legacy" by the end of this decade, Hollywood wants to fail.)

At the end of the night, Mills and Knight gave a nod to the Amp audience – calling them "one of the best crowds we've ever had" – before igniting one final rave with the melancholic "The Last Goodbye," almost a spiritual sequel to Moby's "In This World." And like all proper movie sequels, it goes bigger – with a punchier dance beat, a mid-song funky groove, a little more crinkly percussion, and the soulful bluesy croon of Bettye LaVette playing the role of The Davis Sisters. And a lot more drums, fire, confetti, smoke and, well, everything.


It was a grand finale for a grand show that earned the crew's final bow at center stage at the song's close, a blockbuster fit for a big screen. And indeed, ODESZA will hit big screens nationwide next weekend with a new concert film – a spectacle on par with Tom Cruise jumping a motorcycle off a cliff in the auditorium next door, if the first-person experience at Summerfest is to be believed. 

Matt Mueller Culture Editor

As much as it is a gigantic cliché to say that one has always had a passion for film, Matt Mueller has always had a passion for film. Whether it was bringing in the latest movie reviews for his first grade show-and-tell or writing film reviews for the St. Norbert College Times as a high school student, Matt is way too obsessed with movies for his own good.

When he's not writing about the latest blockbuster or talking much too glowingly about "Piranha 3D," Matt can probably be found watching literally any sport (minus cricket) or working at - get this - a local movie theater. Or watching a movie. Yeah, he's probably watching a movie.