Haack ... the king of techno
Breath control: the history of the human beat box
3 1/2 stars
Experimental music and independent film go together like ... well, like a degree in either of those things and unemployment. So it's only logical that the D.MAC media center has programmed alternating showings of two documentaries that trace the origins of musical styles embraced by urban aesthetes.
In "Haack: The King of Techno," filmmaker Philip Anagnos lauds the influence of the late Bruce Haack, a Canadian-born, Juilliard-educated musician who the film argues was a pioneer of electronica. Remembered by his former collaborators as "reclusive," "sort of detached" or some variation thereof, Haack emerges as an obsessed iconoclast who used self-constructed sound processors to generate a library of delightfully zany recordings in the 1960s and 1970s.
Whether banging out UFO operas on primitive synths or assembling electrical circuits that allowed him to squeeze melodic frequencies from the temples of the human head, Haack was clearly ahead of his time. With that distinction came the necessity of marketing his music wherever it could be heard, whether to adult or youth audiences. One of the most cheerily surreal pieces of found footage in "Haack" shows the techno-wizard demonstrating the capabilities of his space-age equipment to an amazed Mr. Rogers.
Anagnos has fun juxtaposing images of childlike innocence with a genius that's more human than human. He allows the resulting frisson to inform his movie's visual style: Cheezoid geometric patterns swirl behind the heads of interview subjects as they explain the significance of Haack's otherworldly bleeps.
The implicit hypnosis, though, doesn't quite distract us from the movie's cavernous gaps in narrative. Crucial transition stages in the artist's life are left underexamined, and at no time in the film's 56 minutes do we get a coherent picture of how this born talent graduated from accepted musical forms to a musical grammar wholly his own.
There used to be a full-length version of the doc floating around, but it's been pulled from release. Maybe that extra footage has more of the Haack we're looking for. (At D.MAC, the film will be preceded by "Better Living Through Circuitry," a mini-history of the U.S. rave scene.)
Meanwhile, "Breath Control: The History of the Human Beat Box" is a primer in how to make musical revolution when you can't afford any of the preferred tools. The subject is the early-'80s phenomenon of beat-boxing -- in its basic form, emulating the sounds of a drum machine using only the human voice. Most folks who hear that description will instantly associate it with Darren "Buff" Robinson of the Fat Boys (he did bill himself as "The Human Beat Box," after all), but filmmaker Jay Garfield amasses enough expert testimony -- including a discussion of Buff's hyped rivalry with Doug E. Fresh -- to support the conclusion that nobody knows where the technique really came from.
We're then thrust into a remembered maelstrom of old-school innovation, learning the differing skills of various walking sound machines (and often from the source). These lessons in block-party history come complete with recovered video clips that gloriously reanimate the break-dancing, graffiti-spraying, pre-gunplay era of hip-hop. In the spaces in between, we get to hear the Buffs, Freshes and Biz Markies of the world receive due props from modern-day students of the art -- among them, Beastie Boys DJ Money Mark, who also happens to be a talking head in "Haack." Nice programming synergy, D.MAC.
Informative, lighthearted and fast-moving, "Breath Control" is source of constant fascination for the first 45 minutes or so. The problem is that there's another half hour to go after that. When it gets down to debating the negligible differences between the new-jack disciples who are now trying to effect a beat-boxing comeback, the movie just seems like it's splitting hairs -- or maybe that should be harelips. Regardless, this is unquestionably the best Fat Boys movie ever made that's not "Disorderlies."