Theremin: An Electronic Odyssey

Brilliant in moments but flawed, Theremin: An Electronic Odyssey revolves around Leon Theremin, the genius scientist-artist who revolutionized modern music with his invention of the world's first electronic instrument. Gliding over crucial issues, director Steve M. Martin conveys only glimpses of the eccentric life, politics and art of Theremin, who died in Moscow in l993, at the age of 97. Shown last fall on British TV, Theremin is similarly a likely item for American TV, though docu might also warrant a limited theatrical release due to its subject's fascinating life and long-lasting influence on popular culture.

Labeled as “the prophet of the future of music,” and “the Soviet Edison,” Leon Theremin was born in Russia in l895. Docu doesn't provide much information about his childhood, education, or the intellectual influences on his vision, other than saying that in l9l8 he invented the theremin, an electronic instrument that produced, as one interviewee says, “strange ethereal sounds from the air, without even touching it.” Lenin was reportedly so impressed that he summoned Theremin to the Kremlin for a demonstration, after which he exclaimed: “Communism equals socialism plus electrification!”

Martin chronicles Theremin's l928 demonstration of his new instrument at a sold-out Carnegie Hall concert, which led to his acceptance into the American artistic elite. But unfortunately not much is said about Theremin's controversial interracial marriage to the black ballerina Lavinia Holmes; docu just states that “his friends dropped him.”

Theremin's romantic and professional relationship with Clara Rockmore, a Russian emigre who served as his muse and went on to become the world's greatest thereminist, is also not fully explored. Still, among this docu's highlights is Rockmore's recollection of her eighteenth birthday, in which Theremin presented her an electronic cake, which actually moved when she approached it.

The most bizarre event in Theremin's life occurred in l938, when he was abducted by Stalin's agents from his New York apartment. Charged with treason, Theremin was imprisoned in a Magadan Gulag, but later, during WWII, he was put to work on electronic research at the Moscow KGB headquarters. For his invention of the “bug,” the first miniature electronic device that helped the Soviets spy on foreign embassies, Theremin was awarded the Stalin prize.

Docu's most systematic aspect concerns Theremin's vast impact on the music world, including Hollywood movies that used his invention for their eerie scores–excellent footage from Hitchcock's Spellbound, Billy Wilder's The Lost Weekend, and sic-fi pictures like The Day the Earth Stood Still–is inserted. Jumping to the l960s, Brian Wilson talks about Theremin's effect on his work, specifically in composing the Beach Boys landmark song, “Good Vibrations.”

Considering the flamboyant life that the handsome Theremin lived, the intellectual circles he belonged to, his invention of the world's first electronic security system (for Sing Song prison), Theremin: An Electronic Odyssey suffers from too many information gaps and an awkward structure. The film's last 10 minutes are rather weak, suggesting that Martin didn't know how to end it.

Despite all of this criticism, the man that Theremin celebrates had lived such an outlandish life that it's always absorbing to watch his almost century-long odyssey. Here is a documentary that should have been longer–and fuller.

With Leon Theremin, Clara Rockmore, Robert Moog, Nicholas Slonimsky, Paul Shure, Henry Solomonoff, Brian Wilson, and others.