Saturday, August 22, 2009

It Might
Get Wiggy

year, I
dozens and
dozens of
music doc-
ies. Most focus on a particular artist or genre, but every once in awhile a film arrives to focus on a specific instrument.

Davis Guggenheim's upcoming It Might Get Loud, for instance,
celebrates the electric guitar from the perspective of Jimmy Page
(Led Zeppelin), The Edge (U2), and Jack White (the White Stripes).

In honor of Guggenheim's follow-up to the Oscar-winning An Inconven-
ient Truth, this seems like the ideal time to post a review of the follow-
ing, one of the better music documentaries to play the Seattle Interna-
tional Film Festival—and SIFF screens a lot of music documentaries.
It Might Get Loud opens at Seattle's Egyptian Theater on 8/28.

(Steven M. Martin, US, 1994, 83 minutes)

"As long as we're doing something eerie today,
why not get real eerie and put a theremin on it?"
-- Brian Wilson on "Good Vibrations"

Although it could've been tightened up more in the editing
room and the sound isn't always as clear as it could be, Ther-
emin: An Electronic Odyssey offers a fascinating look at
the world's first electronic instrument and its multi-faceted
creator, Leon Theremin, KGB captive-turned-inventor.

Fortunately, the occasion-
al sonic deficiencies don't
detract from the fantastic
music—of vital importance
in a film about an instrument—
but some of the interview
segments with various for-
eign-born individuals pre-
sent interpretive challenges, particularly the legendary Clara Rockmore, theremin virtuoso and inventor's muse, whose segments would've benefited from a few subtitles.

Among the many highlights: film clips featuring Theremin
soundtracks from such anxiety-fueled classics as Alfred
Hitchcock's Spellbound, Billy Wilder's The Lost Weekend,
and Robert Wise's The Day the Earth Stood Still, possibly
composer Bernard Herrmann's most celebrated score.

The funniest scene features Brian Wilson talking about his use of
the instrument on the Beach Boys' "Good Vibrations." Director
Steven M. Martin must've conducted this interview during one
of Wilson's infamous lost years, because he goes on and on a-
bout "children of God," has great difficulty getting to the point at
hand, and clearly wasn't trying to be funny. (Wilson is consider-
ably more coherent in I Just Wasn't Made for These Times.)

By contrast, Robert Moog, in-
ventor of the instrument which
bears his sci-fi-sounding name,
provides illuminating commen-
tary about the history and de-
velopment of the Theremin and
electronic music in general.

Now that demand is on the rise a-
gain, as evidenced by the popularity of Stereolab, Combustible Edison, and other retro-futurist acts, he's been manufacturing them
through his Big Briar company. Alas, Martin doesn't pro-
vide him any time to discuss the equally illustrious Moog.

Professor Theremin died not long after Martin finished film-
ing (and Rockmore followed suit a few years later). He had been
living in his native Russia at the time and was in his mid-90s.

Martin came to town for the Seattle International Film Festival premiere accompanied by music coordinator Hal Willner. To add further interest, they brought along one of Moog's hand-crafted Theremins so audience members could check out the bizarre contraption for themselves (players don't actually touch the instrument; instead, manipulating the air around the box).

The theatrical trailer

Unlike most music documentaries, Theremin: An Electronic
Odyssey might appeal even to those who don't normally gravi-
tate towards the form. Watch in amazement as experimental mu-
sic meets political intrigue, kitsch meets class, and a mysterious
Russian pries open the sounds of Heaven for the citizens of Earth.

Click here for Part Two: I Just Wasn't Made for These Times

Endnote: It's fortunate that Martin made his film when he did,
since Moog passed away in 2005. Theremin would still prove
valuable without all the great interviews, but it certainly would-
n't be as good. Images from Dan Blogs, Synthtopia, and MrMule.

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