SXSW Film Review: Delia Derbyshire: The Myths and Legendary Tapes
Biodoc of pioneering musician is best when she speaks for herself
By Lina Fisher,
11:53AM, Fri. Mar. 19, 2021
It starts with a cascading series of fragmented sounds and images, a visual representation of synth blips, tape hiss and warped voice recordings. Fittingly, SXSW selection Delia Derbyshire: The Myths and Legendary Tapes is more about the audio than the visual.
Images follow the sound, which is so fully described it could have been a radio play; director Caroline Catz takes a cue here from the pioneering electronic musician herself: “To construct moving screens of semi-abstract background music against which the listener can project his own image of God, heaven, dreams, the subjects being talked about by the voice in the foreground.”The Myths and Legendary Tapes has its best moments when Catz sticks to the radio play, suggesting Derbyshire’s interior thoughts with layered ghostly visuals – particularly her early childhood experiences with the World War II Coventry Blitz and her fascination with the air raid siren. Cosey Fanni Tutti’s soundtrack and interviews with Derbyshire seamlessly score the more metaphysical scenes, encouraging the viewer to experience sound viscerally.
The film is at its weakest when Catz introduces (and stars in) a fictionalized recreation of Derbyshire’s life. It serves a purpose of grounding the viewer in the plot points – collaborating with other synth pioneers at the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, creating the Doctor Who theme, experimenting with hippie culture, retiring to the country and drinking heavily in later life – but falls prey to heavy-handed characterization. At one point Derbyshire breaks the fourth wall to declare “I was a post-feminist before feminism was even invented”; Catz puts her in a Doctor Who red telephone booth to transport her through time; she stages a dream dinner with Mary Wollstonecraft and Ada Lovelace. It feels like a modern fantasy of who Derbyshire was; a legend indeed, but one that feels like a costume.
As a portrait of someone enamored with sound, the film rings true when her sounds speak for themselves; when she playfully records friends and collaborators Peter Zinovieff or David Vorhaus and chops and screws their voices, creating truly original electronic music ahead of her time – it’s no wonder Freddie Gibbs and Danny Brown sampled her work. “Delia’s a bit like a diamond,” friend Brian Hodgson says. “You shine the light through it, you get all sorts of different Delias.”
Delia Derbyshire: The Myths and Legendary Tapes