Good Vibrations

Some of the finest movies of the past three years have been documentaries: Hoop Dreams, The Wonderful Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl, and Crumb. Add Steven M. Martin's thoroughly absorbing Theremin to that list. The movie is so fascinating, frightening, and hilariously funny that no one could have made it up.

Anyone who enjoys electronic (or electronically amplified) music owes Professor Leon Theremin a debt of gratitude. In 1920 he introduced the world's first electronic musical instrument (which he not-so-modestly christened "the Theremin"). The professor's revolutionary invention looked and sounded quite unlike any musical instrument to come before it. The machine resembled a nineteenth-century writing desk on legs, with two metal antennae sprouting from its wooden cabinet: a sticklike vertical antenna rising from the top, and a metal hoop extending horizontally from the contraption's side. You didn't need to touch the Theremin to play it; the machine generated an electronic field, and you controlled its sounds by using your hands to manipulate that field. The vertical antenna determined pitch, while the horizontal one regulated volume. The sound produced in this fashion can best be described as eerie A a sort of ethereal ooo-ee-ooo wail that should be familiar to fans of science fiction movies. (The Theremin can be heard in Spellbound, It Came from Outer Space, The Day the Earth Stood Still, The Bride of Frankenstein, and the original The Thing.)

Leon Theremin quickly became an international celebrity. He toured the world with his instrument throughout the Twenties, personally demonstrating a Theremin for Lenin at the Kremlin, and performing sold-out shows at London's Royal Albert Hall, the Paris Opera House, and New York City's Carnegie Hall. He was assisted by a doe-eyed young Russian violin prodigy named Clara Rockmore, whose mastery of the Theremin demonstrated the instrument's potential to the "serious" music community (and in whom Theremin had an abiding romantic interest). In 1928 Theremin established a studio in New York to cater to high-society patrons interested in his work (Albert Einstein was a visitor). By this time the studio had expanded to include advanced electronic instruments, light shows, an electronic dance platform, and even a primitive forerunner of a color television system. The professor was on top of the world when he licensed his namesake to RCA for manufacturing purposes in 1929, just in time to coincide with the stock market crash. In the panic and depression that followed, only 250 Theremins were sold, many of which have been carefully preserved and are still in use.

While living in New York in 1938, the inventor was kidnapped by the NKVD A forerunner of the KGB A right in front of the eyes of his black ballerina wife Lavinia Williams, and spirited back to Russia. Theremin was accused of fostering anti-Soviet propaganda and imprisoned. Rumors of his execution circulated throughout the West. But Leon Theremin was still quite alive. After surviving a stretch in a brutal Siberian labor camp, he went to work for the Russian government on top-secret military projects during World War II. Shortly after the World War ended and the Cold War began, Theremin created one of the most infamous espionage tools of all time -- the electronic eavesdropping device commonly known as the bug. Theremin supervised the bugging of both the American embassy in Moscow and Stalin's personal apartment. Suddenly he was a hero in his homeland. After being declared officially rehabilitated, he received the Stalin Prize -- one of the USSR's highest honors -- for his work. During the Sixties he taught at the Moscow Conservatory of Music, where he ran afoul of the powers that be for insisting on continuing his work in electronic music. (Soviet doctrine frowned upon modern music; Theremin was informed that electricity was not for composing music, but rather for the execution of traitors.) Meanwhile, back in the United States, Robert Moog -- pioneer of the Moog synthesizer -- applied the knowledge of music and electronics he gained while building Theremins in high school nearly 20 years earlier to develop his revolutionary instrument. You could make the case that all popular music employs Theremin's principles of electronics to one degree or another.

By carefully interweaving present-day interviews with archival film footage, home movies, rare audio recordings, and newspaper clippings, Theremin profiles the amazing life of this little-known genius. Rock notables Brian Wilson and Todd Rundgren pay homage to the Russian inventor-scientist in the film: Wilson explicates his use of the Theremin in the Beach Boys hit "Good Vibrations"; Rundgren imitates someone playing the machine. Clara Rockmore's poignant, emotional reunion with the nonagenarian Theremin in New York in 1991 (he died at his home in Moscow in 1993 at the age of 97) after a 40-year separation caps this remarkable documentary about one of the Twentieth Century's most incredible figures. Theremin is as complex, whimsical, brilliant, and spellbinding as the man himself. Don't miss it.

 
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