Theremin at the Movies: It's Not Just for Aliens Anymore

Slate's Culture Blog
July 27 2009 5:09 PM

Theremin at the Movies: It's Not Just for Aliens Anymore

Kim, your playlist of great pop songs featuring the theremin  got me thinking about that instrument’s long life in movie soundtracks. (It was first used in a Soviet propaganda film in 1931, in a score by Dmitri Shostakovich!) 

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I won’t provide an exhaustive roundup of the many films that have made use of this plangent, ethereal sound. (You can find lists of those here or here .) I’ll just note that when a director wants to signal a transcendent experience, whether it’s insanity ( Spellbound ), drunkenness ( The Lost Weekend ), or communication with the divine ( The Ten Commandments ), it’s the theremin that gets wheeled out every time. Miklós Rósza, that lushest and most ecstatic of golden-era film composers, loved his theremin; in Spellbound, its oneiric warbling makes a perfect aural counterpart to Salvador Dalí’s set designs for the nightmare sequence.

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Because of its use in '50s science-fiction soundtracks ( The Day the Earth Stood Still , The Thing ) the theremin now reads as a camp novelty instrument, explaining its use in retro-'50s Tim Burton movies like Ed Wood (soundtrack by Howard Shore) and Mars Attacks! (soundtrack by Danny Elfman). The groundbreaking soundtrack to Forbidden Planet (1956), composed by Louis and Bebe Barron, is as theremin-y in sound and intent as any ever composed, but, in fact, there's nary a theremin in it; the Barrons recreated the millennia-old music of the Krell, an extinct alien civilization, using electronic circuitry designed for the film.

I can’t speak for pop music, but at the movies, the theremin revival has been going on at least since the 1994 release of the documentary Kim mentions, Theremin: An Electronic Odyssey . In Bartleby (2001) and The Machinist (2004), the instrument’s quavering sounds evoke the wraithlike oddness of heroes played, respectively, by Crispin Glover (who’s sort of the theremin of actors, if you think about it) and Christian Bale. The teenaged Argentine heroine of Lucrecia Martel’s magnificent The Holy Girl (2005) is transported, both erotically and theologically, by the sight and sound of a theremin being played. And in the curiously underrated comedy Walk Hard (2007), John C. Reilly’s pop-singer character, Dewey Cox, feverishly insists on adding a theremin solo (along with didgeridoos, a symphony orchestra, and a bleating goat) to his album-length song " Black Sheep ," a parody of Brian Wilson’s never-finished "Smile" album.

The theremin is the only instrument that the person playing it never touches, which gives the very act of playing it a mystical quality; the instrumentalist appears to be summoning otherwordly sounds from the device by sheer telekinesis. Watch this mind-boggling clip of theremin virtuoso Pamelia Kurstin in action, and you can both see and hear why all those Hungarian-born composers, Argentinean schoolgirls, and drunken Ray Millands couldn’t get theremin out of their brains.

Photograph of Ed Wood Courtesy of Wikipedia

Dana Stevens is Slate's movie critic.

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