Dance this mess around

A new documentary is all over the electronica map.

We all know quality is better than quantity, and less is almost always more. Why did director Iara Lee forget these age-old proverbs when making her latest documentary, Modulations?


directed by Iara Lee

plays October 26-29 at the Varsity

Lee's first film, Synthetic Pleasures, was an exploration of the fusion of humans and technology. Modulations picks up where Synthetic Pleasures left off: at the site of the virtual Pleasuredome—the rave. Lee's new work focuses on the electronic music that propelled anarchist raves from the status of hedonistic party to significant cultural movement.

As with Synthetic Pleasures, Lee constructs the film as though she were a 4-year-old child weaned on MTV and split-second sound bites. There's no linear direction, no narrative, and as a result, no real context. To be fair, no one has attempted to document electronic music on such a large scale. It's understandable why Lee clearly felt it necessary to cover all the bases; her film is careful not to exclude anyone and not to overlook any particular musical style. Problem is, electronic music mutates faster than the Ebola virus. Even the die-hard 12-inch collector can't keep up.

Lee never creates a common reference point to help guide the viewer. For the uninitiated, the battery of artists and producers rolled out seemingly by the second (from junglists Ed Rush, Roni Size, Panacea, to godfathers of techno Derrick May and Juan Atkins, to the more obscure experimental and ambient producers Mixmaster Morris and Autechre) must be overwhelming. For the serious techno-head though, it's like a high school reunion—fun to see the artists ("Oh, that's what they look like!"), but not very informative. Modulations ends up feeling like little more than an obligatory roll call.

The film fares best when Lee discards the ADD-addled sequencing for something more centered, as when Georgio Moroder discusses the production of the influential Donna Summer disco track "I Feel Love" and the repercussions of the record on dance music. Segments that concentrate on the making of the music—the gear, the methods—succeed as rare moments of insight. Interviewees like the hypermad Mixmaster Morris and the well-spoken author Kodwo Eshun also inject wisdom and humor.

Lee's avoidance of a linear time line probably reflects an attempt to avoid interpolating her own biases into the film. The film's accompanying soundtrack takes the opposite approach, following a linear time line, rather than roaming the electronic terrain. The soundtrack traces the beginnings of electronic music, from Donna Summer's disco hit to the innovations of Afrika Bambaataa's electro and May's techno opera Strings of Life. The soundtrack succeeds where the film fails: It creates a wrinkle in time for the listeners lost in the electronic universe. In Modulations, those folks fall through the cracks.

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