Ghost in the machine

The documentary Theremin captures--with occasional success--the surreal moods of an electronic pioneer

But easily the most memorable moment in the movie is the unforgettable interview with Brian Wilson. Wilson explains how fearful the sounds of the Theremin were for him as a child, and how adding it to "Good Vibrations" was something of a catharsis; and his observation that the music made by the Theremin has an unspoken sexual quality is one of the most insightful in the film. But his admiration for the Theremin is eclipsed by the fact that his brain is so obviously, catastrophically fried. (Wilson's narrative wanders frequently during the interview, no more humorously than the segment in which he says over and over that the Beach Boys' record label was Capitol.) It's both funny and sad watching him slur the Theremin's praises.

Moments like these are worthy of David Lynch or Luis Bunuel, but the problem with Theremin is that they come too infrequently to convey much of a common theme. It's as though director Steven M. Martin wasn't able to get his subjects to give as consistently freakish interviews as Wilson, so he ends up padding the film with extraneous moments that don't advance his narrative. Martin never approaches the kind of in-depth analysis and psychological examination that documentarian Terry Zwigoff did so magically in Crumb earlier this year. Theremin is simply too conventional to do justice to its unconventional topic. I kept wishing that Martin were more interested in creating a sense of thematic unity than just reflexively trucking out all the facts in linear fashion, trying to tie up every loose end for the sake of closure alone. (He goes so far as to include the completely irrelevant comment by a friend of Theremin's first wife who tells us--just in case we were curious--that Lavina died of food poisoning in Haiti in 1990.) As a result, the movie seems rushed to provide blanket coverage rather than make a few points thoughtfully--it's the Cliffs Notes version of Theremin's life and work.

Theremin could have been a much better movie if it had more fully developed the moods that the Theremin itself creates: ambiguous, supernatural, and otherworldly. Instead it becomes a prisoner of its conventions. Only when it occasionally breaks free of these constraints--and when it does, it can be wonderful--do you get a sense for the odd poignancy of Leon Theremin's life.

Theremin: An Electronic Odyssey. Orion Classics. Directed by Steven M. Martin. Opens November 15.

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