Must-see film for geeks and hackers: Moog

By total accident, I happened upon the documentary film Moog recently — what a pleasant surprise! I had missed its 2004 release entirely. Mog cover The subject of the film is Bob Moog, the inventor of the modern synthesizer. The way Moog and his compatriots talk about his work with music and synthesizers will seem very familiar to software developers or anyone who lives “close to the machine” (that phrase being the title of an excellent Ellen Ullman book). The description of the film on the Plexifilm site reads in part:

. . . a portrait of the legendary figure in music and technology and his ideas about creativity, design, interactivity, spirituality and his collaborations with musicians over the years.

In the film, Moog explained that he “can feel what’s going on in a piece of electronic equipment… it’s something between discovering and witnessing.” [I love this phrasing. – CD] And he was convinced that many musicians come to “feel” a circuit in a similar way. In fact, musicians make such strong emotional connections with the electronics inside a Moog synthesiser that the inventor himself reached cult hero status.

Permanently changing the face of music, the Moog synthesiser went from being the centerpiece of a late-60s craze — appearing on records with such titles as Spotlight on the Moog, Moog Power, Music to Moog By, Country Moog, Moog Indigo, Exotic Moog and countless others — to an indispendable instrument for progressive rock bands like Emerson, Lake & Palmer and Yes to predating the electronic dance music movement of today.

In the film (which is an eminently watchable 75 minutes), Moog and his colleagues and admirers speak to each other like the geeks that they are, talking shop about the various parts of the synthesizers, their modularity and tuneability, and the difficulty they had explaining the early models to musicians and others as they attempted to commercialize their work. While the filmmakers don’t position it this way at all, the discussion of Moog Music sounds very much like the tale of any technology startup, only the startup was founded in 1953, predating even the first known uses of the term “hacker.”

After I enjoyed the film so much, I checked Metacritic and saw that it got a surprisingly low score of 51. I dug deeper into the individual reviews and I think this Austin Chronicle review nails it:

Moog is a laudatory ovation to the man whose technical work has proved essential to numerous artists working today. As such, it provides only a smattering of social context for the electronic music explosion. Moog is an inventor’s movie all the way. . . There are things to be learned here, but it would take a real aficionado to geek out on all the knobs and circuit boards on display.

I’m not a hard-core music gear aficionado, but watching Moog was a sheer pleasure, even when I didn’t understand the specific technical aspects of the discussion. Set your Tivo for Moog, or buy it here. It’s a really, really delightful film for geeks (and Moog’s enthusiasm and joy of creation is enough for me to forgive his role in the rise of prog-rock — just had to say that!)

(Trailer below)

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