Documentary films that take rock or pop music as their subject rarely succeed as anything more than extended-play cheerleading. No matter how impeccably directed concert films like The Last Waltz or Stop Making Sense may be, no matter how visually striking moments of them are, no matter how great you find the music, neither is a particularly interesting movie; you leave with melodies and snapshots, not emotions or ideas or characters. And like most music documentaries, they presuppose interest in their subjects -- few people not already predisposed to do so will gain an appreciation of David Byrne by watching him approximate an epileptic seizure in a bad suit. By contrast, the good music documentaries -- Hated or The Band That Would Be King or The Decline of Western Civilization or Dont Look Back -- don't begin by assuming that you care; they end by making you. They presuppose nothing, telling actual stories -- the enjoyment of which bears little or no relation to a viewer's taste in music. And in a perhaps related development, all of them work as farce, whether that comedy comes from the subjects themselves or the world that surrounds them.
By contrast, Modulations -- director Iara Lee's feature-length documentary about the contemporary electronic/dance music scene -- tells a story, but it does so with an entirely straight face throughout. That's something of an admirable tactic, given the endless procession of comedic layups she must have been presented with during filming. Some of them even make the final cut: When drum 'n' bass star Roni Size lethargically mumbles that "it's chaotic, it's calm, it's ... ever-changing" or when a member of Future Sound of London offers via Internet videocam that "I sacrifice myself in order to feel," you half expect Rob Reiner to pop up and start asking questions. Instead, Lee cuts quickly from such moments, keeping focused on her goal: to present an overview of modern electronic music and place it in the historical context of John Cage, musique concrete, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Kraftwerk, and disco. That'd be a pretty tall order for a six-hour documentary series, much less a 71-minute feature with a nonlinear narrative. As such, it's both commendable that Modulations comes close to achieving that end and unsurprising that it ultimately fails to do so; it's a well-crafted, thoughtful film whose breadth ends up making for little depth.
You can say this about Lee, she did her homework. Over the span of a year and at a cost of $1 million, she interviewed more than 300 musicians, critics, producers, and fans for Modulations, and it seems like at least half of them ended up in the movie; almost nobody appears twice, and the cast includes everyone from Stockhausen to Afrika Bambaataa to Juan Atkins to Robert Moog to Autechre to Carl Craig to the Prodigy to Q-bert to on and on and on. While such a broad assemblage might help lend a scent of consensus to the notion that electronic music in general -- and its underground incarnations over the past 15 years in particular -- constitutes some sort of cultural revolution, it also gives short shrift to something more important: namely, gripping an audience.
The most compelling personalities -- the thoughtful group of Detroit dance pioneers; the charming, soft-spoken Stockhausen; the intelligently charismatic Alec Empire; a slyly arch Cage, like Vincent Price with a music degree, via archival footage -- come and go far too quickly, their screen time taken by so many ethereal mumblers and contemplative journalists. It's not necessarily a bad thing to leave you wanting, but Modulations doesn't do so as a strategic tease; Lee seems more interested in merely compiling evidence than in building any audience attachment to her subjects.
Which ultimately makes her intentions confusing. There's more than enough basic information presented here to suggest that Lee isn't simply preaching to the converted; yet by painting such broad strokes, she gives the disinterested viewer little to connect with or remember, save the notion that something important may or may not be going on here. She takes care not to come off as an unapologetic booster -- dissenting opinions do occasionally appear, most notably when Empire spits that "at the end of the day, it's all about a stupid party." But it's pretty clear where her sympathies lie; too bad Modulations strives to be definitive more often than it instills the same kind of sympathies in its audience. You might learn a thing or two, but it'd be nice to get the feeling that you actually want to be learning them. Or at least to get a good laugh while doing so.