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Various Artists "Speaking In Code " DVD

Amy Grill’s documentary on the techno subculture opens with a helpful orientation of the current scene for the uninitiated, then follows Grill and her husband, David Day on a perilous journey from Boston to Montreal in the midst of a snow storm to catch a rare North American appearance by Germany’s Wighnomy Brothers. Grill globehops from Boston/Cambridge to San Francisco and to key venues/cities in Germany (Cologne, Berlin, Jena), Spain (Barcelona), and Holland (Amsterdam) to interview key movers and shakers in the techno/electronic field, including journalist Philip Sherburne, the principals behind the Kompakt music empire – one of the world’s key distributors and publishers of electronic music, the Wighnomys, Modeselektor (who, we discover, took their name from a knob on the Space Echo machine that’s so instrumental in many of their compositions), Monolake (Robert Henke, who created the software that many electronic musicians use in creating their music), et. al.

We also discover what a closeknit, loving family the fans and musicians have developed into – the rave culture is like an underground, extended family where your ethnic background, language, race, religion, etc. is checked at the door and once you enter the pitchblack nightclubs and backrooms where the techno parties and raves are held, you become a seething mass of loving humanity. There’s a key interview in the beginning of the film with Kompakt co-owner/techno DJ Tobias Thomas where he describes the method to his madness in how he creates a mood and how he raises and lowers the emotional energies of the audience through his musical selections during a performance – from ambient, chill-out openings to full throttle, hopping up and down insanity where the floors are buckling under the collective weight of the audience. It explains just how fanatic these fans and musicians/performers are about this music.

And it is this fanaticism-cum-lifestyle that ultimately transforms the film from a mere documentary on an underground, almost cultish phenomenon into an exploration on just how much this music can overwhelm its participants. As the film progresses, Grill begins to discover a hitherto unseen side of her husband until, as she prophetically suggests, the film switches focus from a film she made WITH her husband to a film ABOUT him.

Grill visits her husband’s workplace at Forced Exposure’s headquarters in Cambridge to interview owner Jimmy Johnson and we discover the laidback atmosphere that permeates these companies, from Kompakt’s headquarters in Cologne to Freude-am-Tanzen’s headquarters in the Wighnomy Brothers’ hometown in Jena in former East Berlin. We’re also transported front and center to key electronic festivals, such as Sonar in Barcelona and Awareness in Amsterdam, which are like South By Southwest, Bonaroo, Burning Man, Coachella, and All Tomorrow’s Parties all rolled into one big, orgasmic mindfuck.

A few things didn’t quite gel for me: although Grill mentions the real names of her subjects, it remains unclear why so many of them choose to hide behind pseudonyms, and the antiseptic, mechanically created aspect behind so much of the music fails to generate the warmth and intimacy that its creators obviously put into it. Perhaps this is why the scene has not caught on so well in America, where Day admits its biggest obstacle is overcoming America’s musical xenophobia. The argument can certainly be made that these “musicians” are as adept at their “instruments” (i.e., turntables and computers) as your typical guitar-bass-drums rock combo, but hiding behind banks of electronic equipment in an isolated booth perched somewhat authoritatively above the crowd doesn’t quite garner mutual respect from an unsympathetic attendee.

Nevertheless, Grill and Day believe so much in their project that they practically went bankrupt maxing out their credit cards to finance the film, all in the name of exposing this music to a wider audience. Day attempts to transform Boston from a rock and roll town into one more tolerant of the electronic scene by bringing Modeselektor over for a rare US concert, but he’s facing a Sisyphusian battle. As he says, these guys have played before 20,000 people in Europe (where fans treat the DJs like rock stars), here we’re lucky to get 100. Still, member Gernot Bronsert acknowledges that they enjoy playing – no matter what size their audience is. The performers’ humility is later reinforced when Wighnomy Brother Monkey Maffia (aka Sören Bodner) refuses to sign a fan’s T-shirt at the Awareness Festival, claiming, “I’m not a star. I’m just a DJ.”

Ultimately, the film ends in destruction – the dissolution of Grill and Day’s marriage and the near nervous collapse of Wighnomy Brother, Gabor Schablitzki (aka Robag Wruhme), which effectively ended their professional partrnership in 2009. Still, it’s a journey worth taking to understand how a dedication to an ideal and a belief in a musical lifestyle can drive one to the edge when you get lost in music. For anyone interested in alternative lifestyles, this is as insightful a journey as Don Letts’ Punk Rock Movie, Penelope Spheeris’ Decline of Western Civilization films, and Ivan Kral’s Blank Generation in relating the UK, LA, and NYC punk scenes. All open-minded music lovers and musicologists should add this film to their music library. Numerous bonus extras from the 250+ hours Grill originally filmed are included, from extended interviews with the Wighnomy Brothers and Modeselektor’s complete performance at the 2007 Sonar Festival to a guided tour of the Kompakt Record office and touching interviews with the Wighnomy Brothers and Modeselektor at the former site of the Berlin Wall. 8/10 -- Jeff Penczak (16 June, 2010)

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