One of the 90’s best documentaries, which seems to have been forgotten these days, Steven M. Martin’s Theremin is an almost textbook case of what a documentary should be, if you happen to stumble upon an amazing real-life story like this one. It functions on multiple levels, covering that oddball and distinct musical instrument that has become a staple of American pop culture, but also the story of Leon Theremin, its fascinating Russian inventor.
Just with that, Martin has plenty to play with. From 50’s sci-fi movie clips where a theremin is used to create that iconic UFO sound, to Beach Boy Brian Wilson talking about the prominent use of the theremin on “Good Vibrations,” there’s a built-in interest to seeing the history of this instrument come alive. Meanwhile, hearing about how Theremin’s invention came to be is nicely and satisfyingly told. A brilliant electronics whiz, he was passionate about his invention, touring the world to show it off.
Then there’s the story of Clara Rockmore, the young, beautiful player of the theremin- the best, by many accounts- with whom Leon fell head over heels for. Theremin’s life is the thing of Hollywood scripts- moving to New York City, working on crazy electronics in the basement of his apartment building… the stories recounted by our subjects, combined with the amazing archival footage, is impeccable. The guy never stopped inventing: an electronic detector installed on a crib that sends out a silent alarm to catch would-be kidnappers… an electronic music machine triggered by dancing… a color tv years before such a thing was officially “invented”… all part of Leon’s average day.
But that’s just part one. The twist that follows… and the others that follow that… push Theremin into the realm of fascination. That Martin is clever (and lucky- let’s not forget luck) enough to have been in the right place and time to capture part of that story live on film is just pure serendipity- but that’s exactly what makes great documentaries great. Martin crafts his story well, teasing you with revelations that he only explains later, the carrot always dangling a few steps ahead. While some of the side stories never get fully developed, leaving you with more questions than answers- and you can see where he could have used a few more interviews to round out the tale- the main story is absolutely crazy (and true,) giving you a unique insight into the music, movies, and politics of WW II (and beyond.)
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