The Man, The Myth, the (Just OK) Movie
Watching Hans Fjellestad’s biopic, Moog, you can sense the respect, awe and reverence that the director has for his subject. It’s understandable, too: For fans of synthesizers and/or electronic music, Robert Moog has become a mythical, cult figure. This is the man, after all, who gave the synthesizer its concept and name, not to mention a keyboard and, in the case of the Minimoog, a means of taking the newfangled electronic monster out on the road.
Moog was definitely on the shortlist of “Music Pioneers who Deserve a Feature Documentary but Don’t Have One Yet”. In that respect, you can’t help but be thankful for Fjellestad’s film and enjoy every moment of it. But as he reveals in the film, Moog fancies himself an artist and free-thinker as much as an inventor an engineer. And, on an artistic lever, Moog is an amateurish, shambolic mess. Maybe it’s all that awe and reverence, or maybe it’s just lack of skill, but Fjellestad doesn’t have it in him to cut the tape when one of his interviewees starts making an ass of himself or rambling off topic. Or when his subject is at a loss for words. Or to even attempt to give the film a narrative focus, direction, or point of view.
Not many films could overcome such obstacles and manage to be worth watching. Moog, however, pulls it off—thanks to Moog. Portly, slightly disheveled, and utterly unassuming, the 70-year-old is, for all his technological genius, an old-school humanist. He’s also a little creepy, giving you the impression that his brain is always working three thoughts ahead, unbound by a particular topic or conversation. This aspect of Moog’s personality yields some of the film’s most interesting moments, as when Moog talks about how he “...can feel what’s going on inside a piece of electronic equipment.” When it comes down to it, the real wonder of Moog—the man and the movie—is not the synthesizer. Rather, it’s Moog’s philosophy of the relationship between living things and technology, of which electronic instruments are only one manifestation. Or, in Moog’s words, his work is “...spiritual in the sense that it uses some way of connecting the things that are in the universe ...other than that [which] we can see with our senses.”
The real problem for Fjellestad and Moog is trying to tie this philosophy in with some kind of examination of the Moog synthesizer and its huge impact on popular music. At times, Moog himself seems wary of the task. He explains his extensive organic gardening hobby and then admits that he doesn’t know just what it has to do with his day job. In what mostly feel like forced circumstances, he hangs out and chats with famous Moog users like Rick Wakeman, Bernie Worrell, Money Mark, and DJ Spooky. He’s usually game for the “you started it all” praise, but occasionally seems plain bored.
Wakeman, of all people, provides some much-needed energy when discussing the live merits of the Minimoog: “For the first time, you could go onstage and give the guitar player a run for their money.” In that concise statement, he captures exactly why Moogs are so special to musicians. But then, Fjellestad is unable to turn away as Wakeman moves the conversation into a degenerate synthesizer-as-sex-partner metaphor, while Worrell and Moog look on in embarrassment before Worrell sheepishly joins in the game. Moog’s conversations with old pals like early partner Herb Deutsch, salesman/studio owner Walter Sear, and composer Gershon Kingsley, are more natural and insightful. It’s fun and inspiring to see that these grey-haired, grandfather-aged men haven’t lost any of their enthusiasm or sharpness. Live performances by the likes of Money Mark, Stereolab, and Tino Corp. should please big fans of the final performance sequence in Revenge of the Nerds; but, the truth is that as a lead instrument, the Moog’s sound is cheesy and outdated. These days, its real power (other than nostalgia) lies in its bass tones and sound effect ability.
Moog is not a history of the instruments themselves; a couple brief demonstrations by Moog aren’t enough to give you much of an idea how these fascinating machines actually work. It is not a look at the rise, fall, and renaissance of Moog’s business; Moog’s 1970s sale of the brand name, and the brand’s business struggles in the 1980s, are not mentioned. It is not a retrospective of the Moog’s use in popular music, either; for every prominent Moog user who gets screen time, several are AWOL. Nor is it a biography of the man himself. In the end, what you get is a snapshot of Bob Moog circa 2004. When, in the liner notes, Fjellestad claims that that is exactly what he wanted to produce, it feels more like an excuse than an explanation.
The handsome DVD edition comes with a couple bonus live performances, once-over-worthy audio “director’s notes” from Fjellestad, and a half dozen deleted scenes that only serve to highlight the director’s plight: several scenes deal not with the synthesizer but with Bob Moog’s involvement with its predecessor, the Theremin; scenes where Moog talks about his name and childhood are paint-dry boring; another features DJ Spooky name-dropping and Sounding Smart while Moog struggles to get a word in edgewise. The only keeper: a hilarious, Moog-irific 1970s commercial for Schafer Beer (“When You’re Having More Than One”).