The Rise of the Synths Review: Neon, pulsing bass and heaps of 80s nostalgia | Melbourne Documentary Film Festival Review | Melbourne Documentary Film Festival Review | SWITCH.




By Jake Watt
28th June 2020

Synthwave, a burgeoning sub-genre of electronic music, is dedicated to the synthesiser. Here the beat, bassline, harmony and chorus are all played on various analogue or emulated synthesisers and drum machines.

Nicolas Winding Refn's 'Drive' (2011) is an important movie in its own right, but its impact on synthwave was enormous. Much was made of the film's signature style, deliberate pace, bold cinematography and Ryan Gosling's performance as the Driver. However, the score may have been its greatest innovation. It caused a sea change in electronic music, from grassroots innovation to the heart of the charts. It introduced synth music to a whole new audience and showcased the ability of the style to invoke menace and wonder, often at the same time.

However, this was only really the beginning. 'Drive' was no smash hit. However, it soon dragged into its pull musicians, writers and young people hungry for nostalgia and adventure. The attention currently being paid to Netflix's 'Stranger Things' and the popularity of the show's soundtrack represents the synthwave genre's biggest mainstream exposure, even as its influence can already be heard all around. In 2020, this weird little sub-genre is in its heyday.


Iván Castell's low-budget, partly crowdfunded documentary 'The Rise of the Synths' charts the genre's humble underground beginnings to its impact on today's pop culture. "You don't know it," mentions one of the multitudes of producers who are interviewed, "but you've probably heard it in advertising or videogames." The film makes a reverse historical sweep of the synthwave genre, ending where the music started with the sober, even ascetic work of Kraftwerk and Tangerine Dream in the 1980s. The decade came to an end and interest in synth music waned, with youth culture moving on to grunge, indie rock and hip-hop. However, by the mid-noughties there was already a generation of young musicians who had grown up on B-movies and arcade games, and wanted to recapture that sound.

Castell employs a diverse and global set of talking heads, which gives a sense how far the internet has helped this genre travel. The documentary hops around as he speaks to Power Glove from Melbourne (who provided the soundtrack to the retro-futuristic video game Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon), Nantes from Paris, Ten from New York and seemingly dozens more of these "synthriders" from London, Spain, Belgium, etc.

Director John Carpenter ('Assault on Precinct 13', 'Halloween' 'Escape from New York'), who "started the whole ridiculous four-note riff that could be really creepy", is employed as the documentary's narrator, recording his observations onto a cassette tape to be taken back in time by a dude with a neck tattoo driving a DeLorean, in a series of interstitial segments.

In 2020, this weird little sub-genre is in its heyday.

Synthwave is a genre of music that's inextricably tied to the soundtracks of movies like 'The Terminator', 'Gremlins', 'Back to the Future', 'Beverly Hills Cop', 'Aliens' and 'Thief'. Particularly revered by modern-day producers are Vangelis for his 'Blade Runner' score and Giorgio Moroder for his work on 'Scarface', 'American Gigolo', 'Cat People' and 'Top Gun', as well as Keith Emerson, Wendy Carlos, Tangerine Dream, Goblin, Jean-Michel Jarre and Kraftwerk.

Why does this music still appeal to people? "It takes the feelings that were projected by things we loved in the '80s and converts that emotional response into music," says UK group Gunship. "The '80s were a less cynical time and film had not crossed that awful, self-aware meta thing that we're witnessing now." Social media and blogging play their parts, with people sharing their fetish for the neon lights and kitsch fonts as well as the music. Current TV series like 'Cobra Kai' and 'American Horror Story' are also cited, along with 'Thor: Ragnarok' and Taylor Swift's 'Style' album. The charm of synth music is innocence - the fact that, at heart, synth music is still the result of nerds fiddling with keyboards in their garage. It has the distinctly idiosyncratic sound of creators who are on the fringes of pop culture looking in.

This musical style isn't for everyone, and it isn't anything new either. As Texan producer John Bergin notes, "It's a reappropriation of past sounds to make a new trend." But if this sounds like something that interests you, Iván Castell's 'The Rise of the Synths' is worth 80 minutes or so of your time.

Looking for more Melbourne Documentary Film Festival reviews? Click here to check out our collection of this year's highlights.
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