Written, produced and directed by Steven M. Martin, the viewer is sucked into the world of the eccentric inventor as if the machine he created—essentially a wood box, tubes, and a pair of antennas—has collected our ethereal essence within its tractor beam. I’m being purposely flippant about the device because it needs to be heard, not described.
Lev Sergeyevich Termen—Westernized into Léon Theremin—was born in St. Petersburg, Russia in 1896 and died in Moscow, Russia in 1993. Ahh…but in between these pre- and post-Soviet historical bookends, Theremin’s influence with his 1919 Russian invention would be subversive, secretive, a brief but open bit of wonderment, cinematically-showcased, subsequently outdated, and then oh so timeless as one listen to the instrument’s weird presence on the Beach Boys’ Good Vibrations can attest.
Brian Wilson of the California surf meets acid-laced band appears in the film talking about the instrument’s appearance on that ’60s chestnut, and the composer is childish, informative, coherent and at times just plain brain damaged like an overgrown toddler trying to describe the indescribable. In the end, he comes damned close. Todd Rundgren either didn’t, or wasn’t allowed to do the same in a woefully short sequence (a segment which should have remained on the cutting room floor as Martin, the filmmaker, was not able to inspire the gifted musician to offer anything new on the subject).
But the most telling passages in the film include scenes with the late Robert Moog, the famed pioneer of electronic music and the synthesizer. Moog would go on to craft his own theremin, and after this film’s debut in 1995, would help reinvigorate the waning influence of the instrument. One of Moog’s career highlights was repairing the instrument of Theremin’s greatest student who would go on to her own formidable career, and is considered the instrument’s supreme player, Clara Rockmore.
Rockmore’s early career was diligently Svengalied by Léon Theremin, and included a stint at Carnegie Hall where a group of musicians in a semi-circle performed while conducted by Theremin. Rockmore’s appearances in the film as a young woman who adores her gifted mentor, and then, as a musician in her 80s, still able to pull otherworldly sounds out of the theremin, is profoundly moving. She plays from her heart, and like Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page, and later, Phish uber keyboardist Page McConnell on jams and versions of Somewhere Over the Rainbow, the Russian-American is able to conjure music that seems out of place with the earth in which we dwell. Her story is complex, touching, and is forever intertwined with the Russian inventor, and just a brief weird mention of that relationship will be played for you now.
As legend goes, in the late 1930s, Theremin left behind his African-American bride (a relationship that, until the late 20th century, was considered taboo in the States), and was either kidnapped by the KGB (Soviet intelligence agents), or willfully left America on his own accord, and returned to Mother Russia. As one does not know all of the details, and the film is blessedly vague despite reports given by those left behind to the validity of the alleged kidnapping, it is best to embrace the mystery and view that which remained. The instrument continued to be championed by Rockmore, who preferred to use it to play classical music, as she considered being asked to play Bach her greatest compliment, but it really came into vogue in the ’40s and ’50s in odd thrillers and science fiction films like Spellbound, The Lost Weekend, The Day the Earth Stood Still, and It Came from Outer Space—not quite Hidden Flicks, but these films were odd, eerie, and downright chilling.
Which all sort of seems to sum up the inventive theremin and the elusive inventor. When the film returns to the man himself (and I won’t give away too many details as I am not here to attack the Soviet Union, or the American government, for that matter, but to be as swirlingly obtuse and flighty yet spatial as possible…kind of like that twin-antennaed …one hears a bit of it in the Bonnaroo version of Radiohead’s “The National Anthem,” which by some sort of weird synchronicity is on the stereo right now; although, slap in the original Star Trek series and the theme song also features the theremin), one gets the sense that the surveillance bugs and spy televisions and tracking systems that may or may not have come from Lev Sergeyevich Termen’s mind were all just a great smokescreen for his own little National Anthem…the theme song from an instrument that can be taught, maybe even mastered, perhaps even manufactured and sold to the masses…but Theremin—with or without a capital T—is not so easily manipulated…instead, a wave of the disappearing hand produces a beautiful extraterrestrial sound…