DVD: Mellodrama – The Mellotron Movie (2008)

July 8, 2014 | By

 

MellodramaTheMellotronMovieFilm: Excellent

Transfer:  Very Good

Extras: Excellent

Label: Bazillion Points

Region: 0 (NTSC)

Released:  January 19, 2010.

Genre:  Documentary / Music / Technology

Synopsis: Exhaustive, affectionate chronicle of the Mellotron and the Chamberlin, keyboard-based instruments which enabled musicians to draw from a substantive library of instrument samples and recreate a full orchestra during the fifties thru the seventies.

Special Features:  16 Bonus / Expanded Interviews (25:49) / Trailer / Gate-fold case with 8-page colour booklet.

 

 


 

Review:

“Watching the Mellotron inside is like to see something that Gallileo or Leonardo D Vinci invented” — Caludio Simonetti

“It’s a contraption. It’s like, rubber bands and gerbils on wheels” — Michael Penn

 

Even for non-fans of musical inventions and outright oddities, Dianna Dilworth’s 80 mins. documentary on the Mellotron and its progenitor, the Chamberlin compels multiple viewings; if not for the sheer fun of watching a panoply of composers and musicians (most from rock) revealing their own fascination for this ‘contraption’ which allowed the musician to play tape-based instrument samples using a keyboard, than just to watch and hear these musical beasts that predated modern samplers, and actually worked.

The Mellotron began as the Chamberlin, an instrument that from the outside resembled your classic fifties organ, but deep inside its guts lay mechanics and tube gear which propelled and played back a multitude of 8 second instrument samples on tape loops. Press a key, and you’d get a flute, drum, trumpet, or violin, enabling the player to exploit an active archive of orchestral samples.

The forties and fifties were filled with peculiar electronic gear – the Theremin and the Ondes Martenot come to mind – but the Chamberlin, as conceived by Harry Chamberlin, a middle-aged WWII electrician and accomplished organist, was in all ways, a wonder. Billed as a jazz orchestra in a box (the first instrument samples were derived from notes and rhythms played by members of the Lawrence Welk Orchestra), the device was designed for home and semi-professional use, and when the company sought to expand into Europe, its enterprising salesman got the clever idea to rebrand shipped units as his own creation – re-badged as the Mellotron – and sell them for his own financial benefit in the early sixties.

An agreement between designed and patent holder Chamberlin eventually settled disputes, allowing for two brands originating from Harry Chamberlin’s engineering to be produced for about 30 years. They were never cheap, but subsequent incarnations offered more improvements, and there were rival knock-offs attempting to improve upon the original technology by using recordable / custom sound cartridges, floppy vinyl discs, and other variations.

Harry Chamberlin was a genius for being practical in designing his contraption from the perspective of an engineer and musician, aiming for simplicity yet acquiring the best quality sound recordings to ensure any Chamberlin owner had the closest thing to an orchestra, whereas the engineers who adapted his creation for the Mellotron excelled in refining the engineering but cutting a few corners on their own original sound samples.

Its historical significance lies in being an early precursor to modern digital samplers in terms of offering a library of sounds, and being embraced by rock musicians for offering an orchestra-in-a-box when a band’s budget made even the use of a chamber orchestra prohibitive.

Dilworth’s doc is a treasure trove of interviews, spanning Chamberlin’s son, Mellotron experts, collectors and historians (Brian Kehew, David Kean), and musicians & composers from several bands who used the instruments for their unique sonics and affording an ‘affordable’ orchestra, especially in prog rock. The roster of musicians include members from the Beach Boys, Cheap Trick, King Crimson, The Moody Blues, Maroon 5, and Black Sabbath.

Composers who made the transition from rock to film scoring are also represented – Michael Penn (Masters of Sex), Jon Brion (Magnolia), Goblin’s Claudio Simonetti (Suspiria) and Fabio Frizzi (The Beyond), and there are some great anecdotes about musicians being ‘hypnotized’ by the instruments’ possibilities, its many quirks, and its endurance among a new generation of musicians who incorporate the specific sounds from original, reproductions, and digital versions of the Mellotron / Chamberlin samples.

Dilworth explores every facet of these machines, letting its users, sellers, and technicians do the talking, making Mellodrama an affectionate and sometimes gripping tale where inspiration changed the course of modern performance and composing.

The DVD’s snazzy gatefold design includes a booklet, and the disc comes with an assortment of extended and related but deleted interview material. A soundtrack album is also available separately.

A related podcast interview with Michael Penn is also available.

 

 

© 2014 Mark R. Hasan

 


 

External References:
Editor’s BlogIMDB
 
Vendor Search Links:
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Category: Blu-ray / DVD Film Review

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