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'Theremin' Plays Instrumental Role In Music History

IF you're a fan of science-fiction movies, Alfred Hitchcock's classic "Spellbound," or the immortal Beach Boys hit "Good Vibrations," you're also a fan of the theremin. It is the first electronic musical instrument, created back in 1920 by Leon Theremin, a Russian inventor.

His other accomplishments include some of the earliest television technology and a role in developing "bugs" for electronic eavesdropping. Such achievements made him famous, but they brought controversy, too. Joseph Stalin's government honored him for his contributions to Soviet espionage, but also put the KGB on his trail and sent him to Siberia for not showing enough party loyalty.

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This sounds like perfect material for a movie, and while Hollywood has overlooked it so far, an enterprising new director named Steve M. Martin - no relation to the other Steve Martin - spins out the strange yarn in "Theremin-An Electronic Odyssey." The documentary is now opening in theaters after enthusiastically received showings at the New York Film Festival and the Sundance filmfest, where it won the Filmmakers Trophy award. Martin covers the whole range of Theremin's adventure-filled life. He moves from the inventor's troubles with Stalin to his work as a serious artist. Theremin intended his instrument not as a horror-movie gimmick, but as a way of plugging the brave new world of electronics into the age-old tradition of classical music.

Given the amazing material it has to work with, "Theremin-An Electronic Odyssey" is not always as clear or gripping as it might have been in the hands of a more seasoned filmmaker. There are times when the story gets repetitious or confusing, and the energy level never reaches that of, say, "Batman Forever," which also has a touch of the theremin in its soundtrack.

The movie is full of ironic twists and unexpected turns, though, recalling not only the excitement over electronic-music technology that erupted in the '20s and '30s, but also the juggernaut of cold-war hostilities that dogged Theremin, along with so many others whose names are remembered less vividly.

It's also fascinating to watch various musicians, including the inventor himself, perform on the theremin - a funny-looking yet oddly graceful gizmo that combines a clunky chassis with a perky antenna on one side and a sort of stationary hula hoop on the other. While it has never become the most popular of instruments, it's still the only one you play not by touching, but by waving your hands through its magnetic fields. As offbeat as its subject, "Theremin-An Electronic Odyssey" is as entertaining a documentary as we're likely to see this year.

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