Documentary Releases: Theremin: An Electronic Odyssey (1994)

The theremin has the prestige of being the first electronic musical instrument, preceding the electric guitar by more than a decade. Invented by Professor Leon Theremin, the unique electronic device remains the only non-contact instrument ever invented. Theremin: An Electronic Odyssey is a fascinating look at the birth of electronic music. Introduced in the early ‘20s, the instrument captivated all who were close enough to hear its wavering sound of pitch and vibrato. 

Electronic Odyssey (the winner of the 1994 Documentary Filmmakers Trophy at the Sundance Film Festival) spends a good amount of time highlighting the world’s fascination with the theremin after its debut. Through old photographs, video footage, and re-collective interviews, it’s easy to see how the instrument captivated the world. Concerts were performed in auditoriums, delighting viewers with futuristic electronically created sound. Professor Theremin’s life proved to be just as fascinating. Dubbed the Soviet Edison, The bulk of Electronic Odyssey looks at the bizarre life of Theremin, who mysteriously vanished at the height of his invention’s fame in 1938. There were many speculations to this sudden disappearance, involving tax evasion, the KGB, and a call to duty in his birth-land of the Soviet Union.

It is no secret the theremin declined in popularity afterwords. It would find new life as a sound effect prop for science fiction films of the ‘50s, creating the musical backdrop for space aliens and martians from another planet. Its biggest break into pop culture would be the song “Good Vibrations” by The Beach Boys. Brian Wilson appears in Electronic Odyssey, recollecting the use of the theremin in the song. Although the majority of his bizarre banter often goes off subject and into other unrelated territory. His testimonials are strange to say the least. Odyssey answers the questions on what became of Theremin. Director Steve M. Martin flew to Russia and interviewed the man himself. There is something magical about watching Theremin play the instrument of his namesake. Gone are the weird buzzing alien sounds the theremin has become known for, replaced by a tone full of emotion and longing; like a haunting love-sick wail that echoes softly in the night. Today the theremin is just a blip in the history of electronic instruments. Thanks to Odyssey, the awe and admiration this unique device once had on the world comes to light. At the height of its fame, the instrument was accompanied by a full orchestra, and was often used to play works by Bach, Brahms, and other popular composers of classical music. Despite being a footnote in the world of music, Odyssey shows the theremin’s immense importance in the world of music, one that would dub Leon Theremin, the godfather of electronic music.  

--Lee L. Lind