I found myself giggling with pleasure, as if on a helium jag, while watching Theremin: An Electronic Odyssey (Orion Classics, PG), the marvelously weird new documentary that chronicles, in systematic, loving detail, the life and career of Leon Theremin. Leon Theremin? No, I’d never heard of him either. He’s the renegade Russian scientist who, in the 1920s, invented electronic music — more specifically, a revolutionary musical instrument called (yes) the theremin, which turns out to be a lot more familiar than you think. Anyone who’s ever seen a ’50s sci-fi movie like The Day the Earth Stood Still or It Came From Outer Space knows the sound of the theremin: that eerie, vibratory ewww-eee-ewww that Hollywood used time and again to evoke a mood of otherworldly anxiety and menace. The theremin’s futuristic quaver was featured as well on the Beach Boys’ ”Good Vibrations,” adding a funky lunar frosting to that sublime aural layer cake.
As curious as the sound of the theremin is the way it’s played: It’s the one musical instrument you manipulate without touching. A boxy, desklike contraption with an antenna and curled metal rod jutting out from its top and side, the theremin creates a magnetic field that a person ”plays” simply by moving his hands around (the higher the left hand, the higher the pitch). In Theremin: An Electronic Odyssey, we see clips of Leon Theremin from the ’20s and ’30s, standing before his instrument with burning eyes, a trim mustache, and the stately handsomeness of a dashing orchestral conductor. We also meet his most fervent disciple, a theremin virtuoso named Clara Rockmore, who appears in home-movie footage, when she was a comely young girl in love with her techno-Svengali, and, decades later, as a vibrant older woman who still performs on the theremin in concert.
Watching Clara Rockmore on stage, her gaze frozen in rapt solemnity, her hands tracing the smallest melodic shifts with eloquent sureness, we might be witnessing some transcendently absurd 20th-century rite: music made frictionless by technology. The passion of Theremin and his devotees has the purity of religion. The reason I kept laughing is that the theremin, for all its futuristic niftiness (it was the direct forerunner of the Moog synthesizer), remains a stubbornly inexpressive musical instrument — it sounds like a violin being played by a giant mosquito. No wonder it found its emblematic niche during the Eisenhower era: It’s the musical counterpart of a 1950s ”miracle” appliance. Theremin features such figures as Robert Moog and Brian Wilson testifying to Leon Theremin’s genius, but as the movie goes on, its hero emerges as an unlikely cross between Albert Einstein and Ed Wood — a visionary of kitsch.
Theremin’s life story might have been dreamed up by Woody Allen in his Zelig phase. After moving to the U.S., he established a studio in New York during the late ’20s, married a black ballerina, and then, in 1938, was kidnapped by the NKVD (the precursor to the KGB) and tossed into a Siberian labor camp. Written out of history, he was presumed dead in the West — but, in fact, he was still very much alive, secretly inventing an electronic bugging device for Stalin. Watching Theremin, we too assume he’s dead, until, in a twist worthy of a Hollywood thriller, the 93-year-old Leon Theremin shows up halfway through the film. Theremin’s return to America, where he has a reunion with Clara Rockmore, is one of the magical oddities in recent movies. When these two walk arm in arm down a bustling Manhattan avenue, with ”Good Vibrations” on the soundtrack, you realize that the pop culture we all take for granted is a richer, stranger thing than anyone might have believed. A