Nico Icon & Thermin
By Mike White
If I learned anything in school it was that documentaries are made in the editing room. You can go out and get all the interviews and library clips you want but the proof of the pudding comes in the way it's put together. There are several models that one might follow in organizing their material but, the bottom line is that there's no one right way of doing it. But there are certainly some wrong ways and those are best exemplified by Steven M. Martin's THEREMIN and Suzanne Ofteringer's NICO ICON.
I read about both of these films before I went to see them and their descriptions sounded very interesting. That's because their subjects of both are fascinating people. However, those paragraph capsule reviews are all that I needed to know about the films since there was nothing more of note in either film.
THEREMIN: Leon Theremin was the Russian-born inventor of a ground-breaking electronic instrument that produces other-worldly sounds and was used heavily by Hollywood's science-fiction films. Theremin married an African-American dancer and was later kidnapped by the KGB.
There. Sounds really neat, right? Well, don't bother seeing the movie because that's all you're going to gather from the film. Even though the film-makers actually get to interview Theremin they never ask him about his marriage or why he was kid-napped. There really isn't any sort of structure to the film. It starts off linearly but then just starts jumping around. There's no examination of the use of the Theremin in Hollywood, just a lot of clips from THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL, THE DELICATE DELINQUENT, and SPELLBOUND. There's also a bit of Brain Wilson thrown in there for comic relief (there was a theremin used in "Good Vibrations"), and a pointless bit with Todd Rundgren (did he ever use a theremin? if so, it was never mentioned).
With such a great topic, I was greatly saddened by how poorly edited this was. I can not believe that it won the film maker's trophy at Sundance or that it got has gotten critical acclaim. Sure, if they reviewed the synopsis it sounds like it can't miss but it does and in a big way.
The same can be said about NICO ICON. Nico led a pretty interesting life. She was a fashion model turned actress turned Andy Warhol factory-groupie turned "singer." She did an album with the Velvet Underground and then went solo. She had an affair with actor Alain Delon and even had a child with him. Delon denied that the kid was his, so much so that he refused to speak to his parents after they took the baby in. Later in life Nico became a big drug addict and even got her son hooked.
This also sounds like good fodder for a story, no? No. Again, there is no real structure to the way Nico's story is told. It tries to be linear but there are so many out-of-place storylines that, by the end, it's just a big mess. For its seventy-five minute running time, NICO ICON is, incredibly enough, overlong and dull and at the end we still don't know if Nico had any talent.
THEREMIN and NICO ICON share the idea of by just throwing interviews and clips on screen you're doing your job as a documentary film maker. Shoot 'em all and let the audience sort 'em out. Skip the movies and read the descriptions instead - you'll save a lot of time and money.