‘The sound he created was strange. His life was even stranger.’
Theremin: An Electronic Odyssey is a 1994 feature documentary about Russian inventor Leon Theremin and the cultish musical instrument that bears his name. Directed by Steven Martin, the documentary features Leon Theremin, with Clara Rockmore, Brian Wilson and Robert Moog.
The aptly named filmmaker Steven Martin (whom we’d like to say is a pseudonym for absurdist comic/actor/novelist/musician Steve Martin, but no) rendered this transfixing, odder-than-fiction true story of Russian inventor Leon Theremin, who birthed the field of electronic music with the instrument that bears his name.
A theremin is a magnetic-field gadget that, paradoxically, can only be played by not touching it. Waving one’s arms around its two poles (originally protruding from a low-tech wooden cabinet) generates a number of tones, in a somewhat disquieting woo-woo manner that often became synonymous with alien-riddled science-fiction and uneasy futurism.
It wasn’t always that way. When Russian physicist Lev Sergeyevich Termen (Westernised to Leon Theremin) unveiled the gadget in the 1920s, it seemed to come along with a wave of innovations, artistic and otherwise, that typified the new, forward-thinking Soviet Union, promising that Lenin’s tomorrow would be a humane, proletarian paradise of creativity unfettered by the nasty old villains of hidebound, class, capitalism and religious superstition. The “Constructivism” sculpture of Alexander Rodchenko and the films of Sergei Eisenstein and Dziga Vertov came along with the same giddy optimism that captivated western intellectuals. Who, in hindsight, really ought to have known better.
Theremin enjoyed a brief heyday in the Jazz-age United States, and his instrument found its first virtuoso in musician Clara Rockmore, who in her prime looked like an Aubrey Beardsley illustration (well, so did nearly all New York City ladies in those days). However, the idyll was not to last.
With Red Scares and the infant Cold War beginning, Leon Theremin was spirited back to the Soviet Union, literally kidnapped into the Kremlin’s research laboratories. He worked on all manner of bizarre projects for the dictatorship – death rays, force fields, levitation, sadly no great details given here – to advance the scientific might of the USSR in ways more in line with monolith Moscow socialist Central Planning Authority, more so than the development of some whimsical melody machine.
Meanwhile, back in decadent-imperialist Hollywood, the theremin persisted. The instrument was deployed in sci-fi flicks like the original, iconic The Day the Earth Stood Still, with Bernard Herrmann composing, it provided a slapstick interlude in a Jerry Lewis comedy and popped up in the Beach Boys classic 1966 song Good Vibrations (thus prompting an interview with Brian Wilson here). Alas, Theremin the man vanished utterly for half a century.
Finally, with the twilight of Soviet Communism, old Leon, long thought dead, was brought to New York City for a reunion with senior-citizen Clara Rockmore, still surviving. Circumstances suggest that she was a great love of his life – and like the instrument, basically untouchable.
Theremin died before this feature’s release in 1993, whence it became quite the art-house item. Clara Rockmore passed away soon afterwards. The feature uses archival film footage, old home movies and obscure newspaper clippings to bring their time and culture-warping chronicle to life.
As for the theremin, needless to say, it can be bought/built via hobby kits and the internet (so, probably, can death rays and levitating force-field bridges). As for communism, well, better luck next time, comrades.
Charles Cassady Jr., MOVIES and MANIA
“Martin […] makes wonderful use of performance footage, newspaper items, home movies, Hollywood movie clips, and posters to illustrate the tale. Theremin is a blend of great subject matter and a well-told story and, furthermore, proves that sometimes things are stranger than fiction.” The Austin Chronicle
“This is a must-see for any fan of electronic music and electronic noise. Watching this movie, I had the immediate impulse of wanting to reach out to Theremin who had obviously been through a lot but yet managed to keep a sense of childlike wonder about him. The character in the movie is far more charismatic than most fictional characters.” Movie Ramblings
“Watching Theremin: An Electronic Odyssey is a curious experience. You begin with interest, and then you pass through the stages of curiosity, fascination and disbelief until in the last 20 minutes, you arrive at a state of dumbfounded wonder. It is the kind of movie that requires a musical score only the Theremin possibly could supply.” Roger Ebert
” …Theremin is a tight, well-paced, near-perfect documentary. Then it seems as if Martin decided his film had to be stretched into a feature in order to get decent distribution. Rockmore’s reunion with Theremin is touching but belabored, and the last third of the film feels padded. Nevertheless, Theremin is still highly entertaining…” San Francisco Examiner
” …a documentary of surprising and seemingly unbelievable twists and turns- a fitting coda on a life that might have provided infinitely more accomplishments had things worked out differently.” Sonic Cinema