Elektro Moskva: FIDMarseille Review

Jaunty documentary takes a genially conventional approach to some radically experimental musical technologies.

Austrian documentary on Soviet and post-Soviet electronic music marks the big-screen debut of writer-director duo Dominik Spritzendorfer and Elena Tikhonova.

Nearly a century of Soviet/Russian experimental music whizzes by in Elektro Moskva, Dominik Spritzendorfer and Elena Tikhonova's droll and infectiously lively tribute to pioneers of futuristic sounds. The Austrian documentary premiered at the country's national film showcase, Diagonale, at Graz in April and has already picked up numerous bookings around a festival circuit whose appetite for well-made, off-beat, music-themed docs remains ravenous. And while its 90-minute length isn't ideal for TV exposure, there's surely enough unused material for at least a couple couple of hour-long small-screen episodes.

Indeed, the project does often exude something of a quart-into-pint-pot vibe, each of its chronologically-structured episodes potentially containing the seeds of a full-length movie. Which is exactly what Leon Theremin, godfather of this particular musical sub-genre, got with Steven M Martin's Sundance prize-winner Theremin: An Electronic Odyssey (1994). Tantalising extracts from the final recorded interview with Theremin, shortly before his death in 1993, bookend Spritzendorfer and Tikhonova's picture. But whereas Martin's picture closely examined Theremin's influence on worldwide musical trends, the impression here is much more of Soviet and Russian musical experimentation going on in near-total isolation -- there's no mention, for example, of Kraftwerk, OMD or Karl-Heinz Stockhausen.

This sense of pioneers working within a sealed cultural bubble is perhaps a factor of how their musical technology evolved in lock-step with -- and as a semi-illict offshoot of -- electronics-based military research, the first "Photo-electric Synthesizer" being developed in 1957 by scientists at the Air Defense Institute. These gadgets were built to last: "aesthetically, it looks rather like a piece of space wreckage" someone notes. "Everything had to be monumental, like a Kalashnikov, built to last" -- and as we see there's now quite a little industry dedicated to tracking down and reselling choice surviving examples.

As the relatively open Khruschev era gave way to Brezhnev's decades of stagnation ("censorship was ruthless and it was everywhere"), such research was driven further underground: "people had to get creative." This creativity is the real subject of Elektro Moskva, a heartfelt tribute to the men (and it was almost entirely men) who through their deviousness, ornery resourcefulness and enterprising ingenuity crafted machines which made sounds never heard before or since.  "These instruments are unpredictable," notes present-day maverick tech-scavenger/musician 'Benzo', "as is Moscow, as is life." It's also about how Soviet ideals gave way to Russian realities, and gradually gains depth as an oblique survey of much wider cultural and social changes within the country.

With bemused, heavily Russky-accented, sometimes mock-heroic narration spoken and written by Andrey Andrianov, Elektro Moskva is itself itself much more quirky than in any way experimental, adhering to standard documentary traditions of archive footage alternating with contemporary talking heads. That said, the debutant directors wisely employ a highly experienced editor Michael Palm, whose own work as a director (2011's Low Definition Control - Malfunctions #0) tends towards the more avant-garde end of the spectrum, and who stitches together disparate materials with a consistently light touch, elevated by occasional virtuouso flourishes.

Venue: FIDMarseille (Parallel Screens)
Production company: Rotor Film
Directors / Screenwriters / Producers:
Dominik Spritzendorfer, Elena Tikhonova
Co-producers: Diana Stoynova, Petra Popovic
Director of photography: Dominik Spritzendorfer
Editor: Michael Palm
Music: Alexey Borisov, Richardas Norvila ('Benzo'), Stanislav Kreichi, Vyacheslav Mescherin
Sales: filmdelights, Vienna
No MPAA rating, 90 minutes