'When My Sorrow Died: The Legend of Armen Ra and the Theremin': Film Review

Courtesy of Porter Pictures
A fawning portrait of an interesting but perhaps not feature-worthy character.

He makes both Theremin and drag look easy.

Falling under the spell of its subject, Robert Nazar Arjoyan's When My Sorrow Died goes off the deep end with its subtitle, "The Legend of Armen Ra & the Theremin." He may be an exceptionally talented practitioner of the finesse-demanding instrument, and he's certainly a captivating stage presence, but legend? Only in his own, very lavish imagination. The club kid-turned-theremin virtuoso is diverting company for 84 minutes, but Arjoyan fails to present the material in a way likely to expand the doc's appeal far beyond the small group of insiders who know Ra's story already.

Perhaps understanding this, the director offers not a bit of introduction that would explain why we should be interested in the man before us. Instead we just leap into a straight chronology of his life, with occasional breaks for impressive concert footage of Ra (in outfits that would make Klaus Nomi envious) playing with piano accompaniment.

Born in Iran, his family was traveling in the U.S. when the Revolution made going home seem unwise; he and his mother settled in Boston. (Where, some years later, a tarot reader would anoint him with the Egyptian moniker he now uses.) Seated among an opulent array of faux jewels and chandeliers (Ra is credited as production designer), the flamboyant man recalls how his obvious gayness attracted bullying in school, and how he found his people on a trip to New York: He was befriended by strangers on St. Mark's Place, was taken to Danceteria that night and never tried to be normal after that.

He was an early club kid, then an exceptionally beautiful drag queen. Good bones and a petite frame helped, but costume designer Patricia Field cites his "meticulousness" about creating looks that evoked the femmes fatales he admired. Somewhere in the drunken haze of club life, he claimed to be studying theremin, an instrument he had never played. The rest, as the film would have it, is legend.

Arjoyan plays into Ra's self-dramatization, cutting away often to tableaux of him posed in exotic interiors, and the pic isn't at all interested in verifying anything he says. Which is fine as far as it goes, especially for viewers who appreciate the sleek costumes and technical skill offered in the concert footage.

Production company: The Gilded Perch

Director-Editor: Robert Nazar Arjoyan

Producer: Matt Huffman

Executive producer: Gary Sng

Director of photography: Gevorg Sarkisian

Production designer: Armen Ra

No rating, 84 minutes