The Rise of the Synths describes itself as a documentary and a time travel about the universe of creating sounds and Synthwave Music.
What is Synthwave Music? This film both seeks to answer that question, and presupposes some kind of understanding that the answer transcends the individual responses given and is at least partly already understood by the viewer.
It opens with the Synth Rider (played by Rubén Martínez) uncovering a Delorean in the desert. Dust storms swirl as the scene is established. Keys, cassette, car... and we're off. The filmmaker, screenwriter and composer John Carpenter's voice comes from the cassette player, a message from the present to guide us through the past. The film is structured through roughly 15 minute segments spent visiting and contemplating 2009, 1999, 1989, and 1999 respectively. The format remains the same throughout. A group of people who participate in the creation and performance of Synthwave music reflect on what it is, how they engage in it, and how it influenced them. The Synth Rider returns to provide a segue between decades, gaining his own quest to take a coin, play an 80s arcade machine, and be drawn into the digital world and absorbed as an avatar by the time we reach 1979. At 82 minutes long, it's a drawn-out format, but remains a compelling film.
The major strength is in the passion of the contributors. San Diego, Melbourne, London, Nantes, Brussels, Exeter, Paris, Antwerp, Toronto. Carpenter has toured the world to bring musicians together. All agree that France provided fertile ground for the development of the genre, and the French participants have much to say (Spanish and French contributions are subtitled, while participants from other countries all speak in English). The cast is vast, but few are mentioned on the IMDB list (Dan Haigh of Gunship, Frank Hueso of Carpenter Brut, and Perturbator the notable exceptions). OGRE Sound officially provides the soundtrack, while others involved include John Bergin, NINA, Electric Youth, The Midnight, Dance with the Dead, Robert Parker, Miami Nights 1984, Waveshaper, 80's Stallone, Carpenter Brut, Power Glove, Valerie Collective (College, Maethelvin), Lazerhawk, MPM Soundtracks, Night Crawler, Scandroid, Gost, and Mecha Maiko. Each has carefully curated the background against which they wish to be filmed, from marshmallow toasting in unknown woods (Gunship) to an empty theatre (Electric Youth), streets, homes, skate parks, and constructed studios (Perturbator). Participants talk about themselves as a counter-culture on its way to mainstream, a home for misfits looking to belong, and the variety of opinions and approaches echoes this.
The time travel conceit is perhaps not as successful as it could have been. The move from human character to digital one, from colour to black and white, from present backwards and then forwards, could have provided a clearer structure and narrative. With an overarching theme of nostalgia, however, the viewer is constantly challenged to think about what memory is, and this helps us to make sense of the sequence. Younger interviewees ask how they can feel nostalgic for an era they never knew. Older ones vary in how they feel about the internet (MySpace helped forge their community but now social media threatens to fragment it). New music is made on old machines, but the technology itself also develops. Perturbator is particularly eloquent in discussing how his music is not a recreation of the 80s, but something new, if nostalgic. Others emphasise how the 90s required them to learn their craft through hard work, developing the genre as the technology developed, with no online tutorials to help. Flashes of dozens of iconic films transport you into the era in question, as each set of interviews recalls the films which influenced them, emphasising how much it is film music, rather than music in isolation (whether live or recorded) which has been so important.
The closing interviews converge on comments around who the fundamental people were in starting this movement. The name John Carpenter is one of those repeated as a mantra (along with Giorgio Moroder and Jean Michel Jarre), before Carpenter himself comes back in to rejoin the narrative. Ivan Castell is the director, but Carpenter pulls the strings, his own nostalgia driving the direction of the film. This film also challenges the role of individual characters in music maker. Masked, anonymous musicians try to convince us that it's the music that matters, not them, while others comment on how this itself is a conceit, and try to integrate their characters with their work. They all explore their music as a journey, thinking about their roots in heavy metal, for example, and considering where the genre is heading. There's a thoughtfulness to their music-making that participants comment on themselves. This thoughtfulness turns the film into a meditation about the meaning of music and its role in (popular) culture, which is itself fascinating.
Music is the heartbeat of the film. The visual aspect of the film is secondary to the audio. The credits remind you how many of the featured artists performed their own songs in it, with many thanks along the way. How you listen to it, therefore, is important. Sacrificing a high-quality screen for one into which you can plug good earphones is definitely worthwhile, although a good sound system may do it justice. If you're a fan of the music already, you may find you drift into experiencing it more as an online concert than a documentary.
This documentary was crowdfunded, with 700 contributors, thanked at the end. A labour of love, a love song to the genre, for a market of lovers, it is a niche film. Those already in the niche will enjoy the experience. Those from outside may not find the enlightenment they might have expected from a documentary, but will have been immersed in the spirit of Synthwave, which is really what it's all about.