There’s something about experimental music, particularly its electronic outlets, that brings out the nerd in instrumentalists. Freed from the constraints of lyrical thought, musical notation and emotional context, musicians are free to pursue squiggly sound currents that are the amplified equivalent of making sounds with your armpit.
This documentary on Robert Moog, the inventor of the analog Moog synthesizer, could’ve very easily been a film directed at keyboard nerds of the dullest hue, with endless yammering about ADSR envelopes and voltage controlled lowpass filters. Happily, director Hans Fjellestad and producer Ryan Page instead set out to put a human face to those warm and wiggly sounds we’ve known for all these years. They let the viewer gradually discover, as musicians have over these past 40 years, that the instrument making end-of-the-world sounds was in fact the beginning of a new one, and that its sounds were perhaps more redolent to the rattles and hums of the human body than any other instrument.
It helps that the subject is an extremely likable guy very connected to his universe, unlike the stereotypical absent-minded inventor who’s brilliant in one arena but a complete failure on a personal level. You might also expect a guy whose invention changed the face of music to be pompous, yet whenever his banter gets a touch too tech-y, he smiles and shuts down like a guy who thinks he’s said too much at a party. Equally, Moog drives what has to be the ugliest car in cinematic history, with a hand-painted depiction of fish and trees on its exterior that resembles a drawing his kid brought home from school which he can’t bear to throw out but must hold some unspoken connection to his spirituality not explored here.
Unlike documentaries on Leon Theremin which wistfully capture the subject at the end of his life, Moog is still active, which removes any need for still photographs and sad reminisces by a widow. Old footage is limited to the early Moog expos, when many feared this invention would put musicians out of work. The Moog synthesizer was indeed dispatched to save on union musician’s fees in its early use in advertising jingles (watch for the Schaeffer commercial from the early ‘70s, in which the most watery beer on earth is matched by the liquid sounds of early Moog master Edd Kalehoff). Although not covered here — possibly for fear it would upset art house cinema patrons — the first use of a Moog on a pop record was on a Monkees album. It’s interesting to note that Rick Wakeman reveals here that he bought his first Mini-Moog off another TV pop idol, H.R. Pufnstuf’s Jack Wild, who no doubt bought it to give Freddie the Flute a run for his money. It took extroverted showmen like Keith Emerson, who actually stabbed daggers into his synthesizers, and Walter Carlos, whose 1968 Switched-On Bach album was the first all-Moog album to sell a million copies, to bring the instrument to the masses in a more pronounced way. Sadly, neither are interviewed here, but Emerson does perform at a Moog-fest and reverently leaves the cutlery home.
And, yes, of course you do have people making dumbass sounds very loudly, from Stereolab to Sun Ra to Money Mark, all adopting Moog’s “if I do this, let’s see what happens” approach to the synths bearing his name. In the end, Moog may not make you rush out and buy a Tangerine Dream CD, but I guarantee you’ll probably never dial a number on a cell phone without thinking about what other connection you are possibly making.
Showing 7:30 p.m., Monday, April 18, at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit; 313-833-3237).
Serene Dominic writes about music for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].