Friday, August 5, 2011
Mellodrama, a new documentary from Dianna Dilworth, has a deceptively casual style that draws you in like a guest to a warm, cosy living room. You feel like you're among friends with a drink and some nibbles. You're relaxed. Happy. Content to enjoy the atmosphere.
Do you remember Theremin - An Electronic Odyssey, a '94 documentary about an incredible musical instrument that can be heard in the spookier sections of films like The Day The Earth Stood Still and Carnival of Souls? It was used to stunning effect in the Lost in Space TV show, too. I love the instrument, and I loved the doco because it explored the instrument, its consequences, and its permutations from every angle with a bunch of credible people who either created it, used it, or both.
Mellodrama (Bazillion Points) is an equally fascinating doco about an instrument, the 'Chamberlin', that is the father of modern day sampling. Today's synthesizers owe a great debt to Mr. Harry Chamberlin, its humble inventor. Back in the 40's, Harry dreamed of venturing beyond the sonic limits of the piano by creating a musical instrument for cocktail parties that would emulate big band and orchestral sounds. He would record real instruments on tapes (samples!) and these would be linked to the keys of a piano-like contraption. When played, the sound produced would trick people into thinking that they were hearing live musicians in a modest home setting. He figured that it would be a great novelty item for when friends got together to sing and dance and sip those drinks with funny names. But without intending to, Harry had created a weird, surreal, spooky sounding instrument that rock bands, movie composers, and experimental musicians went nuts for. One of Harry's overeager salesmen took the Chamberlin to England, sold it to a manufacturer as HIS idea, and gave birth to the 'Mellotron', a more refined version of the Chamberlin.
Although the Mellotron was the preferred and more reliable version of the original, it's believed the Chamerlin's master tapes were far superior to those recorded by the Mellotron's makers. Reliability, it seems, was relative where these machines were concerned, and most users, including Tony Banks of Genesis, used to wonder if he'd finish a set without the Mellotron breaking down.
The Goblin score for Dario Argento's Suspiria is a big favorite of mine, and it was fascinating to hear the band's Claudio Simonetti share his love for the Mellotron and discuss how it was used in the movie's score. He was particularly drawn to its creepy acoustic dynamics. Another surprise guest for me was the talented and innovative producer/composer Mitchell Froom, the man behind the world's best porno score, Cafe Flesh. I listened to the Flesh score immediately after watching this doc and I'm damn sure I could hear the Mellotron's creepy vibes rattling away in the film's surreal mix. Another bonus for cult movie fans is director Dilworth's inclusion of Italian composer Fabio Frizzi, the creator of the fantastic Zombie score. Fabio can barely contain his enthusiasm for the Mellotron, and he touches on its important contribution to Lucio Fulci's horror classic.
The A-list of musos on parade here includes Brian Wilson, King Crimson's Ian McDonald, Rick Nielsen of Cheap Trick, Rod Argent of Zombies, and Mike Pinder of the Moody Blues. All discuss how the instrument colored their music and all relate amusing stories about its use and occasional failure to operate. Jessie Carmichael (Maroon 5), Damon Fox and Steve Frothingham (Bigelf) provide an interesting insight into how modern digital versions of the Mellotron are being incorporated into contemporary works. All up, these and other interviewees represent a rich cross section of talent, and place the Mellotron in an important historical and cultural context.
The "voice" of the Mellotron was heard by millions in The Beatles' Strawberry Fields, and was embraced and popularized by Bowie, Rick Wakeman, Anglagard, Mathew Sweet, Stevie Wonder, Roxy Music, and Tangerine Dream on their album Phaedra. Even goddamn L. Ron Hubbard and actor Peter Sellers owned one. It was so fucking expensive for common folk, it's not surprising that rock stars, cult religion upstarts/sci-fi authors, and eccentric movie stars wanted one for their own funny drink gatherings.
Much credit is due to director Dianna Dilworth, her musical collaborators Mattias Olsson and Brian Kehew, and editor Trevor Smith for creating an accessible, endlessly interesting documentary.
Distributor Bazillion Points, who recently published the essential tome on Swedish cult cinema, Swedish Sensations Films (reviewed on this blog), has hit the ball out of the park with this release. On top of an eight-page booklet featuring an essay on the Mellotron by Moody Blues keyboardist Mike Pinder, the disk comes in a slick, six-panel Digipak with historical info and rare photos. And if that wasn't enough, a few extra bucks will get you a CD boasting 15 Mellotron cues (my favorites, 5 & 8, are the creepy ones) that provide striking samples of the instrument's musical colors and diversity.
Pick this beauty up!