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Films at ADE: The rock doc as an IKEA package.

On the fringes of Amsterdam Dance Event, I saw two music documentaries that expose why this genre is often problematic for the cinephile. Both films have their fine moments, but ultimately fall short for those who desire more than mere information transfer in television format.

A sympathetic Goth

Are 'friends' electric? is title and big hit (1979) by British synth-pop pioneer Gary Numan, who plays at Paradiso on Saturday during ADE. Android in La La Land tells Numan's life story in the classic pattern of almost every music documentary with a pop hero of yesteryear as its subject. The rock doc as an IKEA package: 1. the heyday 2. the decline (drugs, family, money problems or all at once) 3. triumphant comeback. After which credits roll. Visual flair or original story structure is often lacking, sadly here too. With all the 'fade to blacks', this film seems already formatted for commercial TV channels.

Despite these objections, as a viewer you do develop sympathy for Numan, who suffers from Asperger syndrome and depression. In particular, his wife (former president of his fan club) and three young children guarantee some heartwarming scenes. Amid this pop star's hyper life, you feel that Numan probably wouldn't have made it without them. Still, the impression prevails that this wants to be more of a promotional film for Numan than a cinematic statement in itself.

When you hear Smashing Pumpkins and Nine Inch Nails, clearly related to Numan, you do gain a greater appreciation for 's man's pioneering electropop. The film ends in accordance with the rock doc's ultimate cliché: sold-out theatres and well-attended autograph sessions. All's well that ends well. Android in La La Land was made a one-off by the Spanish music documentary festival IN-EDIT brought to ADE as a try-out. The choice makes one curious about their selection for the first Amsterdam edition, early next year.

Pioneer on the modular synthesiser (v)

Suzanne Ciani is not a familiar name in the music world. The documentary dedicated to her life and work A life in waves is an important corrective to the hitherto mostly male history of electronic music for that reason alone. Especially the first half, this is a film that is well told with superb archival material. As a pioneering 'sound designer' and plodding for years among futuristic-looking analogue synthesisers, you get a lot of appreciation for this woman.

Ciani managed to conquer a lot of men's strongholds with her experimental music. After her classical training, she did a lot of commercial work. From Atari game console via the advertising sound of a squirting coca cola bottle she pimped up to her soundtrack for the first talking pinball machine Xenon. Ciani's life and work is typical of better cultural history: unknown figure, huge impact around the world. This part of the film is fascinating and even topical: Ciani wanted to make technology sensual. For the sound design of that pinball machine, she had even thought of whipping, but that went too far for the manufacturer.

New Age is also music

Once Ciani decides to seek a career in serious music after all the beautifully portrayed pioneering work and subsequent years in advertising, however, the film dramatically changes character. Then the viewer is suddenly exposed unprepared to, how to put it politely, blisteringly noble kitsch. As it turns out, Ciani is well known: she has penned numerous New Age records and is a big name in that world. Album after album full of 'soothing' muzak of the kind that makes the enamel jump off your teeth and that last mouse bolt out of your house under squeaky protest. She herself says she was happy that with 'New Age', there was finally a name that gave her music a chance. She got five Grammy Award nominations for 'best New Age album' to her name.

From the moment Ciani enters the picture as composer and musician, you eagerly look forward to the credits. Her music is, we search for words here, truly unbearable. The accompanying soft focus images even give ground to a suspicion that there must be irony here. But no: the horse running through the tideline that is in A-Ha's Take on me style being 'morphed' is dead serious. Soprano saxophonist Kenny G., notorious for his Vaseline sound, comes into the picture - without any comment. Read this last sentence again.

After the tropical years, Ciani appears to have moved from New York to California, where she lives perilously close to the sea. From her astrologer, she believes her house will not disappear into the sea. The filmmakers can still just barely see the cracks in the wall.


By the end of the film, the circle closes (that New Age way of thinking is still damn infectious). For a moment, things get interesting again when the hipster-fairy British record label Finders Keepers releases her earliest experimental music on vinyl. As a result, Ciani is being discovered internationally by younger generations of dance enthusiasts. At conferences and festivals, she almost shyly shows interested youth how to tame such a modular synthesiser. Surprised, Ciani sees a similarity between her hardcore New Age audience and today's dance-making nerds. The beard!

Both films strongly give the impression that the filmmakers were neatly taken by the hand of their subject. Now, I would by no means argue that a music documentary succeeds as a film only when there are screaming arguments and unauthorised versions. I am, however, convinced that precisely a literary, free, rigorously cinematic approach is preferable to a neat TV grid with a stamp of the master. I am thinking here of, for instance Latcho Drom by Tony Gatlif (1993) and The harvest of silence by Eline Flipse (1995). The phenomenon of music is too beautiful to be left to writers.

Suzanne Ciani - A life in waves can be seen in Lab 111, Amsterdam and Kino, Rotterdam. She performs on 4 November on at Bitterzoet Amsterdam.  Order her work on Gary Numan plays Saturday 21 October during ADE at Paradiso (sold out). IN-EDIT is from 22 to 25 February at the Westergasterrein, Amsterdam.

Jaïr Tchong

Formerly cultural journalist and music programmer (Tolhuistuin, Melkweg) in the Netherlands. Since 1 December 2019, music programmer for arts centre KAAP. KAAP organises two annual collaborations in Bruges and Ostend. In Ostend in its own venue by the sea, in Bruges nomadically throughout the city and with partners such as Concertgebouw Brugge, Cactus, CC Brugge and De Republiek. KAAP also organises festivals: Push the Button, Dansand, Jazz Brugge and AMOK.View Author posts

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