Posted by: gdevi | January 7, 2012

Movie Review: Moog (2004)

Moog. Dir. Hans Fjellestad (USA). 2004. (available on Netflix streaming)

Are you enjoying this winter break before the universities open for the spring semester? I am. My daughter’s school has opened and between the time she leaves for school in the morning till she gets home in the evening, I am completely “pigging out” (as my old client V used to say from my social worker days) on reading all the books I got last year as gifts, and watching all the movies I have wanted to watch. I have many book reviews to post here before the spring semester starts: Audrey Niffenegger’s novel Her Fearful Symmetry, Michael Dregni’s book Gypsy Jazz, Cristina Eisenberg’s Wolf Tooth, Cynthia Ozick’s Foreign Bodies, Jeffrey Toobin’s The Nine about the US Supreme Court, David Sedaris’ Me Talk Pretty One Day, Carolyn Burke’s biography of Edith Piaf, No Regrets, Andrew Davidson’s The Gargoyle, Jo Nesbo’s The Redbreast (when I look at this list: you have gifted me so many books, Nic! Thanks so much!)–so many wonderful books. A very productive break.

But this is a review of the film-maker Hans Fjellestad’s film Moog, a wonderful tribute to Dr. Robert Moog (pronounced like “vogue” or “rogue” with a diphthong /ou/, and not long “oo” /u/ sound), the inventor of the electronic synthesizer. Though I have not listened to them anytime recently, I used to love the music of Kraftwerk, which was very popular in India, when I was a kid. There was this one movie theater in Trivandrum that actually had a thick red velvet curtain in front of the screen. When the auditorium lights went out this curtain would slowly start to lift from the ground up in a wave-like fashion. It was totally magical to us when we were kids even though it was predictable and we had seen it many times before.  Sort of David Lynch-like; you half expect a spooky little man with painted eyes to smoke his pipe and make an enigmatic gesture when the curtain is fully drawn. The curtain would lift off the floor to the beat of this electronic music–sometimes it was Kraftwerk, sometimes something else. (I wonder who those old projectionists were and where they got this music in Trivandrum?)  In a way it was completely appropriate that electronic music lifted the screen to reveal the movie to us; it was all energy. I became really fond of synthesizer and electronic music seriously because of some of the great movies from the seventies and the eighties that had film scores and soundtracks composed by electronic music composers and groups such as Tangerine Dream who did the scores for some great movies from this period– Sorcerer, Risky Business, Shy People, and Walter Carlos (later Wendy Carlos) and Rachel Elkind who did the score for Kubrick’s film adaptation of A Clockwork Orange.  To me, electronic music, and particularly the Moog synthesizer vividly expressed the strange dream-like narrative landscapes of these formally and thematically unique movies.  So I started watching Moog already favorably disposed to the topic and to the man who invented the synthesizer, and I have to say, I thoroughly enjoyed this documentary tribute to a charismatic and original inventor, who not only was a good engineer who crossed over into the music industry and became a figurehead for keyboardists such as Rick Wakeman of Yes and Keith Emerson of Emerson, Lake and Palmer, but also an interesting thinker mulling over what is really the only question worth mulling over: what is the nature of reality? What is matter? What is energy? Are they really interchangeable?

First, let me say what this documentary is NOT about; that way, you won’t be disappointed when it doesn’t deliver all these things, if you happen to go looking for them. It is not a history of electronic music, it is not a history of the invention and evolution of the Moog synthesizer, it is not a biography of Robert Moog. What it is is this: Moog speaks to us informally about his interest in creating completely new sounds, new timbres, work with pitches, acoustics, and tones, and that this was a “real idea” within his mind and how he was able to translate that into electrical signals, and ultimately into circuit boards, and then into instrument panels. Moog recalls how a few traditional musicians who played instruments made from wood or steel asked him”Moog don’t you feel guilty for what you have done to music?” Moog says that he just could not understand that kind of response at all. He had experimented with theremins and had built many theremin kits for hobbyists and the fact that you could create musical notes without touching an instrument simply by moving your hands over two antennas to control pitch and volume fascinated him because of what it told him about sound, about music, and about instrument as an interface between the player and the music.  Do you have to touch something in order to transfer/ translate what is in your mind? Does the music come from the instrument or from the mind of the player? How important is the instrument to music? The synthesizer keyboard is not an “instrument” in the naturalistic sense of the term, the way the guitar is an instrument or a drum is an instrument. The fortuitous element of this story is that there were musicians who were asking the same questions and wanted this to happen, and who welcomed this new way to make music; the Moog synthesizer was a vast improvement over any other kind of electronic music device in the 70s and the 80s.

The documentary follows Moog as he visits several of his musical “followers”– Wakeman, Emerson, DJ Spooky, Herb Deutsch, Bernie Worrell–where they discuss how the synthesizer aided their own musical expression and creativity. Wakeman talks about the strange circumstances in which he came to possess a MiniMoog– a very funny story really–and how suddenly the keyboardist actually had something to do during a live performance on par with the guitarist et al. Deutsch, with whom Moog had collaborated in the seventies to design the synthesizer brings up the contrast between “imitative” synthesizer sounds and new timbres and tones unique to the synthesizer. This discussion is elaborated very beautifully by DJ Spooky who connects the hip-hop splicing and “found sounds” with this imitative vs new sounds debate simply by varying pitch that the synthesizer is able to do. You could very well be the inventor of the bass drum sound on the keyboard, DJ Spooky tells Moog. Interesting, don’t you think?

Moog died one year after the making of this documentary. I am glad Fjellestad made this movie; Moog appears to have been thinking of the nature of creativity and its relation to the universe at the time of the making of this film. The documentary seamlessly weaves in this aspect of Moog’s personality with his industry work with musicians and designers. It would have been fascinating to discover Moog’s later thoughts on these questions. Not many documentaries leave us wanting to know the answers to such interesting questions.



  1. Hey, if you liked Moog, you might also like to check out the documentary on Leon Theremin, entitled Theremin: An Electronic Odyssey. He created his namesake pioneering electronic musical instrument and one of the world’s first “televisions” for the Soviet government as an alarm system and surveillance “eye,” respectively. Becoming perhaps the world’s premiere electronic musician, he was then sent by his country to the US as a spy. Here, he became a star and a bit of a “bohemian” artiste—before the Soviets spirited him away one night back to Russian, where he largely disappeared. Quite a tale…

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