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Movies : The Thing That Goes Oo-Wee-Oo : 'Theremin: An Electronic Odyssey,' a biopic of a musical inventor, proved to be a personal odyssey as well for its filmmaker.

August 13, 1995|Chris Riemenschneider | Chris Riemenschneider is a Times staff writer

The hardest film to make is an untraditional one.

Steven Martin, the director of "Theremin: An Electronic Odyssey," knows this all too well. It took him five years to complete his documentary on an obscure musical instrument and its even more unknown Russian inventor. And he had to sacrifice a lot along the way.

"I lost my girlfriend, my car, my apartment and a lot of sanity," says Martin, 40. "But I finished it."

Part of what helped this mad-scientist of a filmmaker prevail--along with his Visa Gold card and a diet of bread and water--was his passion for the film's subjects. Martin wasn't shooting "Theremin" just to try and make it big as a filmmaker. He was trying to help an unsung hero get the recognition he deserved.

That man was Leon Theremin. Officially declared executed in Russia in 1945, Theremin was a political prisoner who previously had come to America to invent the world's first electronic musical instrument. Aptly named the theremin, the instrument used electronic waves to change pitch and volume for a violin-like sound. The amazing thing was, the player never touched the instrument.

Martin, like most people, first heard this musical wonder-machine in the sci-fi horror films of the 1950s and '60s, like "The Day the Earth Stood Still" and "The Thing." It's the machine that provides the eerie, wavy background noises whenever your hairs were supposed to stand on end.

"After my brother and I saw ["The Day the Earth Stood Still"], we never stopped making those noises. We'd walk around the house going, 'Woooo,' " Martin says, imitating the theremin sound.

But the theremin did have its influence on popular music. Robert Moog, a subject of "Theremin" who is widely recognized as the inventor of the synthesizer, credits Theremin's work as his inspiration. Beach Boy Brian Wilson, also a subject of the film, credits the theremin for helping make "Good Vibrations" the innovative hit that it was.

These examples of the theremin's influence are what brought about Martin's interest in Leon Theremin, but he never actually intended to make a movie on him. As Martin learned of the inventor's dramatic life story of being kidnaped from his high-class New York social life to become a prisoner at a Russian gulag, though, the idea of the movie grew.

Getting information wasn't easy.

"Basically, we were Americans trying to get information on a man that was convicted by the KGB and declared executed for political reasons--it wasn't exactly easy," Martin says. "But we just kind of played dumb. We told them we were doing a documentary on Russia's contribution to music around the world, and they sort of opened up."

Martin says he was able to complete about 75% of the documentary with his own money. He spent his last dollars on a plane ticket to Europe, and shopped the film around there. England's Channel 4 eventually agreed to pick the film up and pay for its completion.

"The problem was, I couldn't sell the movie until I had it made," Martin says. "While the written proposal for the movie was close to the finished product, it admittedly was a pretty dry, boring read. There were so many emotions to see and feel and so much to hear."

Since its completion, "Theremin" has become a hit, receiving a British Academy Award nomination, a Filmmakers Trophy at the Sundance Film Festival and a Golden Gate Award at the San Francisco International Film Festival. The film will be showing in Los Angeles starting Aug. 25 at the Nuart, a theater in which Martin himself was a projectionist during his college days.

"Theremin" was screened at the St. Petersburg International Film Festival last year, and members of Theremin's surviving family attended. They were among the many Russians to discover for the first time the significant contributions of their own countryman.

Martin fondly recalls how after the film showed, Theremin's relatives offered him a poster promoting a concert by the scientist before he was imprisoned, which they had kept stowed away for nearly 70 years.

"It was this large, bright yellow poster that had his name proudly and loudly printed across it, and they wanted to give it to me as a gift," he says. "I told them to keep it, because finally, they could display it . . . and they could be proud of it."

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