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Theremin: An Electronic Odyssey (1995)

9 June 2003 by Gnoll No Comment

THEREMIN: AN ELECTRONIC ODYSSEY


1995, dir. Steven M. Martin

83 min. Rated PG.
Starring: Leon Theremin, Clara Rockmore, Robert Moog.

Review by Noel Wood

The Theremin, for those not in the know, is an electronic musical instrument that operates without any contact by the person playing it. Rather, the player’s position in proximity to two points on the instrument decide the pitch and volume of the sound that comes from it. Oh, and every few months or so, I encounter someone who has just “discovered” the Theremin and feels like they’re on the cutting edge for their knowledge of its existence, when it’s been widely used in the mainstream for over half a century.

The Theremin was named for its creator, a Russian emigree named Leon Theremin who was born in 1896. THEREMIN: AN ELECTRONIC ODYSSEY chronicles his life and the development of his invention. Now, I like documentaries as much as the next guy. In fact, I think I may enjoy them more than most. But in seeing a ton of documentaries over the years, I’ve also gotten a bit critical of them.

You see, there are two main factors that gauge how good a documentary turns out. The first, of course, is an interesting subject matter. But more important than that is a for the film to be a well-made movie. THEREMIN has the first half of that equation down pat. There are few life stories as interesting as the one that Leon Theremin had, and there’s so much that his invention has affected in popular culture that there’s just no way a documentary like this can miss. Or can it? Because, unfortunately, THEREMIN forgets about the second half of the equation.

As a result, THEREMIN turns out to be one of the biggest exapmles of wasted potential since Kevin Smith wrapped DOGMA. (Okay, so THEREMIN came out six years before DOGMA. I know this. Please, just work with me here. I know how much it pisses people off when I mention the follies of Mr. Smith, so I try to work in a barb every now and then.) You see, as I mentioned, Leon Theremin’s life was absolutely enthralling. The guy emigrated from Russia, invented a musical instrument that turned the world on its ear, married a black woman when such a thing was unheard of, was kidnapped by KGB Operatives, met with Vladimir Lenin, and was enslaved in a Soviet prison camp in the 1930’s where he was believed to have died. And on top of all that, filmmaker Steven M. Martin discovered during the filming of his documentary that Theremin was still alive, now 95 years old, and still living in Russia. He flew him in, reunited him with his former protege and girlfriend Clara Rockmore, and interviewed him for the film. On top of that, he was able to get testimony from many that Theremin had inspired, including Robert Moog and Brian Wilson. Now, with that source material, you’d think there’d be no way this film could miss.

But maybe Martin felt that way as well. As a result, if there’s one thing that I really felt about this movie, It was that it felt unfinished. First bit of evidence for that is the lack of supertitles introducing the interviewees. Now, it’s one thing if you’re interviewing big Hollywood celebs, but who knows who Nicolas Slonimsky or Henry Solomonoff or Beryl Campbell is? Certainly not me, and it would have been a lot better if I were able to surmise who was being interviewed from something other than having to poke around their words to figure out where they fall into the puzzle. But if there’s one thing that this film lacks, it’s a sense of direction. As a matter of fact, it feels like Martin filmed a whole bunch of stuff and then realized he was short a deadline and stopped editing it about halfway in. The first half of the movie splices together stock footage of Theremin and his contemporaries playing the instrument, along with clips from films that employed the instruments, and interviews with people from his life. It works well enough, although it’s still not presented in the most interesting way possible. It’s about the halfway point, when we discover Leon is still alive, that the film begins to deteriorate.

No offense to Mr. Theremin — after all, he was 95 years old when the interview footage was filmed, but with his accent and physical condition, he’s hard to understand and really doesn’t talk about much. Some subtitles and a little editing might have helped, Mr. Martin. From that point on, it just fails to flow. They interview Brian Wilson, which is oddly the most amusing portion of the film, even though they more than likely should have shaved off about three quarters of the part where he rambles about the young people being the children of God or whatever he says. From there, they decide to interview Todd Rundgren, which I was really looking forward to, but all he actually does is a ten second imitation of the instrument and is never seen again. It’s like, why even bother using his footage? The film then shows the reuniting of Theremin and Rockmore as they tour modern New York City and catch up on their lives. Unfortunately, at this point, as grand an occasion as we know this is, the film had really lost my interest and I was just waiting for it to end.

Which leads me to my other gripe, and one that plagues the documentary genre in general: something I like to call feature syndrome. Many documentary filmmakers seem to have a fear that if they don’t make their film into a feature-length presentation, it won’t be as good. Granted, it won’t be eligible for the feature Oscar and might languish on television rather than getting an arthouse run if it’s a bit short, but as was proven in the terrific NATURAL HISTORY OF THE CHICKEN, sometimes an hour is all you need. Once THEREMIN hits about the fifty minute mark, I felt like it needed to wind down. Sometimes bigger is definitely not better.

I can’t say I don’t recommend the film, though, despite all its flaws, because it’s the only place you’re really going to see such a comprehensive telling of Mr. Theremin’s life story. That alone is worth the price of the rental, even if the final result isn’t what it should have been. Steven Martin had a goldmine to work with here, it’s just too bad he chose to put it on autopilot rather than really make a nice little final package.

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