1998, NR, 75 min. Directed by Iara Lee.
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., Oct. 9, 1998
Lee could have called this Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Electronic Music But Were Afraid to Ask. From John Cage to Roni Size to Beastie Boy associate Mix Master Mike, Lee tosses in everything she can think of, shakes it up, and streamlines it into an amazingly brief 75 minutes. If anything, Modulations is too short, piling on soundbite after soundbite until it all becomes a bit of a blur. You walk away from the film feeling as though you've suddenly learned everything there is to know about electronica past, present, and future, but the information is parceled out in such small dribs and drabs that you end up knowing nothing. It's Electronica 101, the Cliffs Notes edition, which isn't to say the film is a failure -- it's not. Lee has perhaps bitten off more than she can handle. Culling 300 hours of interviews taken over a period of three years, the film moves from such pioneers of the genre as Cage (who is captured in some obscure black-and-white footage expounding on some even more obscure musical theorems) and landmarks such as Luigi Russolo's groundbreaking 1913 Art of Noises treatise. From there, Lee moves on to such underground luminaries as Karlheinz Stockhausen, Robert Moog, Georgio Moroder, and on and on -- snippets of interviews with what seem like a hundred different voices. The question -- if there is one, and with Lee's elliptical editing style it's hard to tell at times -- isn't so much “What is electronic music?” but “What isn't?” Toward that end, Lee's film offers up a veritable cornucopia of answers and non-answers, often in the same interview. Alec Empire of Atari Teenage Riot expounds on his anarchic musical worldview, flatly stating that at the end of the day, electronica is nothing but an excuse for kids to party all night and sleep all day. On the other front, Future Sounds of London, interviewed from England via a WebCam, discourse on the Merry Prankster aspects of their music and lifestyles. They're annoying, actually, and not a little befuddled. It's Psychic TV's Genesis P. Orridge, lounging in his kitchen, who offers perhaps the most telling insight in the film: Referring to electronic music, and presumably the world at large, he wryly opines that nothing makes any sense, and it's not supposed to. Trying to get to the root of electronic music (in 75 minutes, anyway) at times seems equally senseless, but it makes for a hell of a factoid-laden documentary. Lee's scattershot pacing -- images and voices and talking heads flying by at 140 beats per minute -- doesn't exactly facilitate the myriad opposing arguments presented here either, but you can't help but admire her chutzpah in tackling the whole natty subject in the first place. It's a whirlwind ride through the electronic underground that finally comes up empty, but it's still a wild ride, and wildly entertaining.