Synthetic Bliss: Movies About Electronic Music

It’s Friday and time for another edition of Rock Docs And Biopics, a look at films and stuff that deal with music – from documentaries to concert movies and biopics (where actors recreate musical history) so you have something to watch this weekend.

I just got a press reminder about a screening tomorrow night (which is/was this SATURDAY May 22), of Dianna Dilworth’s documentary Mellodrama: The Mellotron Movie at 7pm at Cinefamily in Los Angeles. Here’s the trailer for the film, which is also for sale on DVD here.

Of course, living up in the San Francisco area, I can’t be there, but if you are in L.A., try to get to this screening because not only will the director give a brief Q&A session, but there’ll be a live Mellotron performance by Brian Kehew of Moog Cookbook (he’s also played with Air and even backed The Who.) The film’s distributor has helpfully included the following endorsements:

“If you’re interested in the history of electronic musical instruments, Mellodrama is not to be missed.” –Electronic Musician

“Mellodrama …is a largely successful attempt to tell a fascinating story, one that does in fact contain elements of drama.” –The Wire UK

“The Mellotron stays cool.”—Brian Wilson

Jon Brion from "Mellodrama: The Mellotron Movie"

“This is where sampling started.” —Jon Brion

Mellotrons and Chamberlins, tape loop based samplers, are close to my heart and I go back a relatively long way on the subject, having written a feature on them for Electronic Musician magazine, entitled Days Of Future Passed, which ran in their September 1998 issue. In that piece, Jon Brion told me one of Harry Chamberlin’s advantages was the fidelity of his tape loops. “The recordings are exceptional,” Brion raved, “and I don’t think they could be recaptured with the same warmth using today’s equipment. Harry miked his instruments with a Neumann U47 in a room with great acoustics, and he recorded them directly into a mono Ampex tape machine. Those old Ampex machines had beautiful mic preamps with fantastic , utilitarian designs. He also didn’t use any EQ or compression, so the samples are very clean.”

By the way, if you aren’t familiar with Brian Kehew’s band, The Moog Cookbook, you really should be. I also interviewed Kehew for that September 1998 Electronic Musician piece, where he admitted that the obvious drawback of these mechanical devices was their tendency to break down from everyday use, especially the Chamberlin. “Most Chamberlins sound great,” Kehew told me, “but work poorly. The M1 is probably the only reliable keyboard that Chamberlin made. Unfortunately, its basic housing structure is much less durable than a Mellotron’s, so it, too, is prone to some maintenance problems.”

I had first interviewed Kehew and his duo partner Roger Joseph Manning, Jr. (Jellyfish, Beck), for another Electronic Musician piece, entitled In The Kitsch-en With The Moog Cookbook, for the March 1998 issue. In that piece, both Kehew and Manning discussed the pros and cons of working with vintage synthesizers and mechanical tape delay keyboards. “Our first album, The Moog Cookbook,” said Manning, “was used at the Berklee College of Music as an example of what not to do with a synthesizer!” They had a playful approach to musical history that went over some people’s heads, and as Manning confirmed, a lot of people didn’t get it. “People are sometimes afraid to tell me that the records made them laugh…but Brian and I..want you to sit back, relax, and enjoy the sonic freak-out!”


MOOG (2004) Directed by Hans Fjellestad

Featuring Rick Wakeman, Charlie Clouser, Keith Emerson, Robert Moog, Edd Kalehoff, Mix Master Mike, Bernie Worrell, Money Mark, Gershon Kingsley, DJ Spooky, Bootsy Collins.

Description from Netflix: “Inventor of the synthesizer, Robert Moog revolutionized modern music and culture. In addition to tracing the roots of electronic instruments, this film, through interviews, photos and archival footage, offers an up-close look at the maverick responsible for integrating technology and art. A philosophical eccentric complete with wild hair and intense gaze, Moog shares his sometimes mystical views on creativity, interactivity, music and machines.”

Sam Graham, on Amazon says: “A man who genuinely revolutionized late-20th Century music gets his due with Moog, writer-director Hans Fjellestad’s absorbing documentary about Robert Moog, inventor of the synthesizer that bears his name. In his seventies when this 2004 film was made, Moog began working with electronic music in the late 1940s, when he designed and built theremins (the source of the wavy sci-fi sound heard on the Beach Boys’ “Good Vibrations”). But it was the development of the Moog synthesizer, an analog instrument with electronic components, that put him on the map. Unsurprisingly, it was initially dismissed as a soulless novelty, a notion not helped by its use in silly commercial jingles; Moog himself was regarded as nothing less than a dangerous anarchist out to destroy music as we know it. That all changed when he added a keyboard to his machine and musicians of all stripes gradually began using it for more serious ends. Moog credits Walter (now Wendy) Carlos’ Switched-On Bach as the first important milestone, and the list of major artists who have used it since then includes the Beatles (on Abbey Road), Stevie Wonder (a vital early proponent who for some reason goes completely unmentioned here), Keith Emerson of Emerson, Lake & Palmer, and Rick Wakeman of Yes. The latter two perform briefly in the film, as do many others (P-Funk’s Bernie Worrell, Sun Ra, Charlie Clouser of Nine Inch Nails), but Moog is the star here. Indeed, it’s hard not to believe this genial, self-effacing man when he talks of the “spiritual connection” between his invention and the people who play it.”

THEREMIN: AN ELECTRONIC ODYSSEY (1995 ) Directed by Steven M. Martin

The fascinating tale of inventor Leon Theremin and the his wailing, whining operatic sounding musical instrument, which Amazon accurately describes as the “the secret link between sci-fi films, the Beach Boys, and Carnegie Hall.” This film was a hit at  Sundance the year it entered, and features a rare interview with theremin virtuoso Clara Rockmore and praise from Bob Moog. The film also has a weird dark side, discussing the time Leon suddenly went missing inside the Soviet Union.

Here’s a clip of Clara Rockmore performing “Habaner” by Ravel

OHM: THE EARLY GURUS OF ELECTRONIC MUSIC (2005) By Thomas Ziegler, Jason Gross, and Russell Charno

Features interviews, animations and experimental video works by the pioneers of electronic music, including, Clara Rockmore, John Cage, Jean-Claude Risset, Steve Reich, Morton Subotnick, Holger Czukay (Can), Bebe Barron, Paul Lansky, Leon Theremin, IannisXenakis, Milton Babbitt, Laurie Spiegel, David Behrman, John Chowning, Robert Ashley, Max Mathews, Pauline Oliveros, Alvin Lucier, Mother Mallard and of course, Robert Moog.

And finally, a film that I’m dying to see…


Amazon customer “J. Warden” from Des Moines, Iowa, writes: “First of all, I loved this movie. Then again, I, I am very much into the Krautrock scene that Kraftwerk sprang from and found that very fascinating. The first hour of this movie is not really concentrated on Kraftwerk, but on how electronic music and Krautrock – anti-popular, avant-garde “rock” – came from Germany, and how it developed on different levels (academic, cultural, and ‘normal’ music channels) I think most Kraftwerk fans will be interested but if you’re thinking “I don’t give a damn about Popul Vuh, tell me about Kraftwerk” you will find it VERY boring. The filmmakers I think did Kraftwerk a great service by this, however, because they show that while Kraftwerk were amazingly innovative and fresh their cultural context was not a vacuum, however it seemed to the West when “Autobahn” was a hit. All that said, all the popular Kraftwerk stuff from Autobahn on was dealt with as well as can be expected with no big surprises to uncover. When specific pieces of equipment were discussed, I found that fascinating, but the obligatory talking heads (“Krautrock expert”, “Music Reviewer”) discussing records got a little bland. All the discussions by the actual musicians in the Krautrock scene (and 1 former Kraftwerk member, a coup I imagine for the film makers) were great. The post-Kraftwerk explosion and influence I thought would be uninteresting but it was actually very watchable and engaging – starting with the drum machines on Donna Summer’s hit, to Bowie’s experiments in Berlin, and then to 80’s pop music.

I have one tiny thing to complain about, and that’s with all the talk about some great and obscure Krautrock artists, why did Faust get shafted? FAUST!?!? Only mentioned once, in passing? Maybe they weren’t “typical” Krautrockers but as the movie showed, there were only a few threads linking all the Krautrock bands together and they weren’t musical as much as they were conceptual……anyway, yeah, good movie”


5 Responses to “Synthetic Bliss: Movies About Electronic Music”

  1. Am I you or are you me? Says:

    the mellotron one seemed like fun. Or the trailer anyway. Still think these are for music geeks almost exclusively. Which isn’t to say I wouldn’t like to make a film FOR music geeks myself.

  2. Max Hutchinson Says:

    Nice work, Paul. I enjoy your broad tastes and desire to dig deep.


  3. Dean Thut Says:

    The Theramin thing had me mesmerized. I heard somewhere that SciFi movies would also use studio wave generators for their soundtrack. The exact name of the movie escapes me right now. But it was Planet From Outer Space.

  4. I recently watched Kraftwerk and the Electronic Revolution, and although I am quite a big Kraftwerk fan, I thought it was quite tedious by the end of the 3 hour playing time. It needs a significant amount of editing and cutting before it becomes a good documentary. It could easily be cut back to about 90-100 minutes without losing any information, as there is a LOT of repetition in the film. There are some fantastic moments in the documentary, and some very nice pieces of information and supporting information, and then there is just repetition and filler, we don’t need to hear 5 people make the same comment……that said, it is still very much worth watching, just be prepared for a long haul.

    OHM: The Early Gurus of Electronic Music is brilliant, it has some great featurettes. it is just a pity they didn’t include segments from people like Peter Zinovieff, Delia Derbyshire or Daphne Oram.

    Mellodrama looks great – I just ordered the DVD!

    Speaking of Peter Zinovieff, “What The Future Sounded Like” is a great 1/2 hour documentary about the fun and music that Peter Zinovieff, Tristram Cary and David Cockerell, were getting up to in the 40s, 50s and 60s. This could have been twice as long, as it really just gives a glimpse. Unfortunately Tristram has now passed away, but he had hours and hours of great stories to tell about early electronic music and his misadventures in sound 😉

    • I agree btw, most documentaries these days could do with a timely visit from Mr. Scissors. And many forget that the “facts” are boring unless there’s a storyline. Well done.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: