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Film review: Theremin: An Electronic Odyssey

Published: Tuesday, March 26 1996 12:00 a.m. MST

The Theremin is an electronic musical instrument that predates - by several decades - and is the obvious model for modern synthesizers.

It's an odd-looking thing, a wooden box that somewhat resembles an antique radio, with two metal rods sticking out, one vertical and the other horizontal. And without touching it, the player can cause a weird sound to be emitted, with pitch and rhythm controlled by hand movements in front of the contraption, as it plays off of human energy.

You may not think so, but you've probably heard it, most prominently in the Beach Boys hit "Good Vibrations" and Jimmy Page's work on Led Zeppelin's "Whole Lotta Love," as well as in movie scores, ranging from Bernard Herrmann's themes for the classic '50s sci-fi thriller "The Day the Earth Stood Still" to Miklos Rosza's Oscar-winning music for Alfred Hitchcock's "Spellbound."

The inventor of the Theremin was Leon Theremin, a Russian scientist whose life was the stuff of implausible spy fiction. After inventing his electronic instrument in 1920, and following a tour of performing concerts around the world, Theremin established a studio in Manhattan in 1928. There he catered to high-society patrons and put on light shows that included an electronic dance platform and a color television system.

In 1938, Theremin was kidnapped from his Manhattan studio by the NKVD (an early equivalent of the KGB) - right in front of his horrified American wife, a ballet dancer - and forced to return to Russia. It was reported widely that he was executed, but in fact he served a term in a Siberian labor camp and then went to a military prison where he worked on top-secret military electronics devices - he even supervised the bugging of the American embassy!

Eventually, Theremin was allowed to teach at the Moscow Conservatory of Music, but when his electronic themes didn't go down well with the conservative theories of the time he took a routine job with a technical institute until his retirement - unaware of the influence his instrument had on American music.

There's much more, of course, and it's all detailed in the fascinating documentary "Theremin," which includes interviews with Theremin himself, and others with whom he was associated; an extensive discussion with Robert Moog, who credits Theremin with inspiring his own Moog synthesizer, which changed the face of rock music; generous movie clips, ranging from horror films to "The Delicate Delinquent," in which Jerry Lewis has a comic encounter with a Theremin; and the usual archival footage.

Also interviewed is Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys, whose incoherent blathering is at once frightening and hilarious, and whose foul language is the reason the film isn't rated G.

The real coup here, however, is landing the cooperation of Clara Rockmore, a Theremin virtuoso and apparently the love of Theremin's life, who really lights up the film whenever she's on-screen. And their reunion in New York City, however contrived, is a warm highlight that comes late in the film.

Too bad filmmaker Steven M. Martin declines to explore Theremin's politics or the nature of his personality, and tends to gloss over his kidnapping and the years that immediately followed.

Theremin returned to America in 1991. In 1993 he died in Moscow at the age of 97.

"Theremin," rated PG for profanity, is a fine, straight-forward documentary that relates an incredible story - one that would make a terrific narrative film someday.