Theremin, A Fascinating Life Clumsily Told

I recently watched the documentary Theremin: An Electronic Odyssey about the life of Leon Theremin, pioneer of electronic music. If you don’t recognize the name, I guarantee you’d recognize the sound of his most famous invention, the theremin, a musical instrument which is played without touching it.

Its unearthly tones have been used in music as varied as the Beach Boys’ “Good Vibrations” and the soundtracks of Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound and Robert Wise’s The Day the Earth Stood Still.

The documentary earned rave reviews, including “two thumbs up” from Sisko & Ebert as well as Best Docuentary at the 1994 Sundance film festival. I had long looked forward to seeing it due to my interest in Theremin and the movie’s reputation.

I was, however, disappointed to find the documentary uneven and unclear. Without narration, it moves haphazardly through Theremin’s life, making a jumble of his complicated history. Viewers are often left to piece together the disparate events on their own.

Some of the subjects interviewed seem to have been given little direction or editing; Brian Wilson, tapped to discuss his use of the theremin in the iconic “Good Vibrations,” is allowed to ramble on with his trademark incoherency far longer than is useful.

Theremin arrived in the Unites States in 1927. The film makes extensive use of Clara Rockmore, arguably the greatest theremin player ever, but even with her lengthy interviews much is unclear. I don’t recall Theremin’s first wife being mentioned in the film. Theremin proposed to Rockmore (she said no), but when? When did he divorce his first wife? He married his second wife sometime in the mid-1930s, but it’s unclear.

In 1938 Theremin disappeared back to Russia under mysterious circumstances, and his wife, friends, and associates could not find out what had happened. His life in the hands of the Soviets from that time forward has some astonishing twists and turns that are carelessly related. There were times I almost wanted to shout questions at the screen to try to get an understanding of when things were happening.

Although rumored to have been executed, he was eventually discovered to be alive by Rockmore and her husband, but it’s unclear when. I’ll not list any further spoilers, but suffice to say it sometimes comes across that the filmmaker didn’t do research to illuminate any details beyond what his interview subjects told him. This is complicated by the elderly Theremin’s shaky and hard-to-follow English.

All that said, I would still recommend people interested in the subject to see the documentary. The period footage and the new interview footage are fascinating even when you can’t fit together the jumbled jigsaw puzzle of his tragic life.

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