If you think that electronica reached its apex with Tangerine Dream's score for Labyrinth, Judge Russell Engebretson warns that this documentary may not be for you.
Bruce Haack was one of the most musically and lyrically inventive unknown artists in American history.
Haack: The King of Techno is a documentary by first-time filmmaker Phil Anagnos that engages and frustrates the viewer in about equal parts. When the focus is on Bruce Haack and his strange career, the film is intriguing; when the film lingers too long on modern composers who never met Haack, it induces fatigue.
Facts of the Case
The film paints a biographical picture of Bruce Haack, who was born on May 4, 1931 and grew up in the small mining town of Rocky Mountain House in Alberta, Canada. He was a self-taught pianist who played and gave lessons locally from the age of fourteen. When old enough to enter college, he applied to the music program at the University of Alberta but was rejected. He later received a scholarship from the Canadian government and was invited to attend New York City's Julliard School. Haack loathed the school's authoritarian, regimented approach to music, and dropped out after only eight months. He did, however, form a lifelong friendship with fellow student and pianist Ted Pandel.
Another friend he made in New York City was Esther Nelson, a children's dance instructor with whom he formed a record company dubbed Dimension 5. Nelson says they recorded their first children's record with a seven-dollar microphone; they had to stop taping at 11:00 in the morning when the garbage trucks went by, because they didn't have soundproofing. Dimension 5 released several albums during the 1960s (the Dance, Sing, and Listen series) that featured Haack's homemade synthesizers and modulators, as well as more conventional instruments like banjo and piano.
Thanks to friend, business agent, and musical collaborator Chris Kachulis, Haack made part of his living from scoring TV commercials—one of his clients was Parker Brothers Games. In 1969 Kachulis convinced Columbia Records to release Haack's first adult album, The Electric Lucifer, a strange brew of acid rock and electronica with vocals by Kachulis. (To the horror of Columbia management, Haack modified the studio's Moog for his recording.) Kachulis briefly discusses Haack's extreme drug and alcohol use in the 1970s, which partly stemmed from his disillusionment with the entire recording and entertainment industry; however, the darker side of Haack's life is portrayed only in a cursory manner.
The documentary includes numerous interviews with friends, business associates, and contemporary musicians who were influenced by Haack's music. There is also a wealth of archival footage on display, such as Haack's appearances on episodes of Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood and I've Got a Secret, and many family pictures, stills of old album covers, photos of his studio from the 1960s and '70s, and pictures of Haack and friends from the 1950s until his death from heart failure in 1988. The work on a Bruce Haack tribute album—a benefit release for autistic children—is documented in several scenes near the film's end. The album features several artists who were interviewed for the film: Money Mark of the Beastie Boys and members of DJ Me DJ You, Mouse on Mars, Eels, and Anubian Lights.
Phil Anagnos says he has gotten a lot of flack from many electronica fans who argue Haack had nothing to do with techno. Anagnos defends his choice of the title when he says, "you can view techno as an electric acid bass line, tweaked out, or it can be a whole aesthetic culture." Certainly, a strong argument can be made that Bruce Haack's electronic experimentation was at least a precursor to later groups such as Kraftwerk and Gary Numan, and those bands in turn were a strong influence on artists as disparate as Aphex Twin, Autechre, and Black Lung, to name just a few. In any case, the film does not live or die on the proposition that Bruce Haack's music was the prototype for the techno genre, but rather offers a condensed version of Haack's life and accomplishments.
There are times throughout the film when a subject is brought up but never expanded upon. Early in the film, Mark Oliver Everett (founder of the band Eels) states, in a wry fashion, that Haack's music was probably influenced by the use of peyote with a local Indian tribe when he was only eight years old. That very interesting statement is not pursued, although during a series of still photos there is a single picture shown of Haack as a young boy posing with a group of Indians. It may be that filmmaker Anagnos is holding his cards close to the vest and not revealing Haack's whole story: He tells an audience (on one of the DVD extra features) that he is writing a film treatment for a feature-length film about Bruce Haack and is searching for financial backers.
The documentary employs quiet a few visual effects—framing interviewees in black-and-white TV sets, using vintage film clips of New York City as backdrops for the interviews, and creating animated montages to accompany excerpts of Haack's music. This stuff doesn't always work; sometimes it's just annoying, but generally it does keep the story visually interesting, and occasionally it borders on inspired lunacy. An interesting inclusion is the 1968 appearance of Bruce Haack and Esther Nelson on Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood that shows Haack demonstrating one of his do-it-yourself synthesizers to Mr. Rogers. Also amusing is what appears to be a kinescope of a 1960 episode of I've Got a Secret: Haack demonstrates his Peopleodian (also called a Dermatron), a synthesizer that allows him to play music by touching the skin of a person wired to the device. In this instance, the person Haack is "playing" is a piano player, so it's a duet—proof positive that the fifties was a wilder decade than many believe. (Yes, it was filmed in 1960, but the fifties didn't really end until 1963.)
I enjoyed this movie, so I am sad to report that the audio is atrocious. Poor DVD sound authoring (I assume it is the authoring and not the original film soundtrack) is especially egregious on a documentary about a musician. The dialogue and music sounds as if it's overlapping a fuzzy, distorted echo of itself. Speech is understandable, but the distortion is incredibly irritating; and switching from Dolby 2.0 to 5.1 makes no difference. In fact, Dolby 5.1 just smears the distorted sound across all three front channels. The picture is passable, just nothing to brag about; there are numerous digital artifacts, though nothing unacceptable for a low-budget documentary. Oddly, the DVD case claims the aspect ratio is 4:3, but it is framed in 1.85:1.
The extras include a longer version of the Mr. Rogers episode, a tape of the movie's premiere at the Slamdance Festival at Park City, Utah with the filmmaker fielding questions from the audience, four Koch Vision trailers, and two radio interviews: one with Phil Anagnos, and the other with Bruce Haack from the early 1970s. The Anagnos radio interview is worth listening to; he openly discusses the difficulties and minutiae of filming the documentary, and elaborates on some of the more obscure aspects of the film. The Haack interview is interesting from a historical perspective, and simply for the opportunity to hear some of Haack's thoughts in his own voice.
Haack: The King of Techno left me wanting to learn more about the idiosyncratic Bruce Haack—someone I had never heard of until viewing this DVD—and his recordings (two of which were never released), and that by itself makes the DVD worth watching. However, due to the dreadful sound, I can't recommend a purchase—only a rental.
The soundtrack is in desperate need of rehabilitation; otherwise the court finds all parties not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Koch Vision
• Phil Anagnos at Slamdance
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