In case you haven’t seen one of the highlighted films being showcased during Cornell Cinema’s March Music Madness, two entertaining documentaries, Dig! and Moog, are certainly worth checking out before Spring Break.
Moog tells the story of Robert Moog Ph.D. ’65, inventor of the moog synthesizer. The documentary explores how a rather nondescript engineer from Trumansburg created one of the most important musical instruments of the century. With the invention of the moog synthesizer, for the first time since the 19th century, a musical instrument was created that produced an entirely new sound.
While some models of Moog’s invention may look like a computer hooked up to a keyboard, time and time again the audience is reminded that the synthesizer is not merely an electrical appliance. The musician must play around with the frequencies and tune the instrument to reach a sound that he wants. The results are amazing and unpredictable new tones and beats. As one musician says in the film, “Bob’s given us an instrument with an X factor.” However at the center of the film is the rather simple and slightly eccentric Dr. Moog who now resides in Asheville, North Carolina. Director Hans Fjellestad balances conversations between Dr. Moog and artists using his device for their music now with conversations with his peers who helped him develop and distribute his synthesizer. Moog provides an interesting and touching look into the relationship between an inventor and the instrument he creates.
Dig! provides its audience with one of the most intimate and revealing looks into the life of rock musicians and, for the most part it isn’t pretty. The film follows the paths of two indie rock bands out of the mid 1990’s, The Brian Jonestown Massacre and the Dandy Warhols. The central figure of the documentary however is Anton Newcombe, the leader of the BJM. While all the members of the two band smoke a lot of pot and drink to excess, Newcombe takes substance abuse a such an intense level even Keith Richards probably would advise him to go a little easy.
Over the course of the film, the “Dandies” deal with diva photographers and music video directors, angry managers and thoughtless record executives. Finally the band starts to crank out the hits. While their music doesn’t catch on too much in the US, by the conclusion of the film the Dandies can actually say without joking, “we’re big in Europe.”
On the other hand, the BJM, while creating beautiful music, just can’t keep it together. At the center of their brilliance and problems is Newcombe, who band members describe as “someone from the 60’s” who simply has trouble translating his wild lifestyle into productivity. Newcombe is the insane genius who composes brilliant songs but singlehandedly destroys the band through his arrogance and addiction to heroin. Newcombe regularly fights with the audience, bouncers and members of his own band. He also says things like, “I don’t do anything wrong, that’s why I don’t say I’m sorry.”
Dig! results in being an intense and intriguing study into the mesh between genius and sanity, which often gets blurred among some of the most intriguing artists in all mediums.