Wednesday, April 23, 2014

That Song from Transcendence

Trying to Not Let a Bad Movie Ruin an Old Favorite

No real need to see this movie
The other day I went to my local multiplex to see Transcendence, the new techno-thriller starring Johnny Depp. As a movie about the possibilities and consequences about replicating or transferring intelligence and consciousness into digital networks, it had the potential of exploring many scientific, sociological, and philosophical issues raised by our actual current technological environment. As a big budget Hollywood movie, of course, it did none of this or did so in the most cursory, and/or ham-fisted ways. This did not surprise me, of course, nor was I surprised by the ponderousness of the script, or the heavy-handed use of religious metaphors. What I was surprised at was hearing Jorma Kaukonen’s beautifully wistful 1974 song “Genesis,” playing throughout the movie.

My first thought was, hey, good for Jorma. It’s a beautiful song and he deserves the windfall of royalties that he’ll be (or should be) receiving due to its prominent placement in a major motion picture.

My second thought was specifically about how the song was used. Though it seemed like an odd choice at first, the pastoral song seemed to be a nice, albeit completely unsubtle, counterpoint to the paranoid techno-fear theme of the movie. The characters seemed to recognize this. The song is heard in the film when the main characters of Dr. Will Castor and his wife Evelyn (played by Depp and Rebecca Hall respectively) repeatedly play the LP on their portable turntable as a way of distancing themselves from the technologies to which they devote their lives and work. In fact, the actual physical record is shown to be a prized possession for the couple and, as the film goes on, a nostalgic artifact of their earlier simpler lives before murder, robotics, and other amusements intervened. There was one thing that bothered me, though, and that was that the filmmakers or set-designers or whoever is in charge of these decisions, decided to give the LP a different, older looking label.
Does this label seem too modern?

I was almost embarrassed to write that last line. I mean, what kind of geek would care about something like this? Here’s the thing, I think it matters more than some other trivial inaccuracy that only a sexually frustrated overgrown child living in his mother’s basement would point out. The reason I think it matters is that by making album look older, it seemed as though the filmmakers were trying to make the practice of playing records and cherishing them appear to be an even older and more antiquated practice than it already is. One that is more associated with industrial revolution era luddites than something from our own childhood memories. Why did they have to make it seem so foreign? Why do they have to make me feel so damn old?

My last thought was that the song was somehow being taken away from me. If Transcendence gets to be widely seen, the song will become far better known than it was a few weeks ago. Now, I wouldn’t say that the song “Genesis” is all that obscure a song. In fact, most of my friends would even consider the song to be a bit of a classic. But then, many of those friends are people who spent the bulk of their twenties going to hippie music festivals and have a preference for, how shall I say it, post-psychedelic roots music.

Jorma Kaukonen, circa 1978
My own introduction to the song was when I saw Jorma perform at The House of Blues in Cambridge, Massachusetts, sometime in the summer of 1998. I was already a fan of Jorma’s through his work with the bands Jefferson Airplane and Hot Tuna, but I did not know any of his solo work. In the middle of Jorma’s set of masterful finger-style blues, he dropped in the song. Its lilting melody and contemplative lyrics set it apart from the rest of the pieces, even in an all acoustic show. I was taken aback. I asked the guy next to me what the name of the song was. “Genesis,” he screamed into my left ear.

(Prior to that, when I was hearing audience members shouting “play ‘Genesis,’” I thought they were drunks who thought that the ensemble in front of them was a cheesy bar band taking requests and were just dying to hear “Invisible Touch” at that very moment.)

Quah - 1974 - Grunt Records
I went out the next day and bought a copy of Quah, Jorma’s first solo album which opens with the song. I immediately began to play the song for everyone who would visit my studio apartment. I would put it on mix tapes for friends. The song was my gift for them.

Now it’s just “that song from Transcendence,” and utilized in the movie in such an overly dramatic way as to make the song seem even more saccharine than it is, and I guess that irks me a bit. I always feel the need to say that I am not a hipster, but maybe I share some unfortunate traits with that group, namely the feeling of self-satisfaction that comes from knowing something that is not common knowledge in mainstream circles. However, I will defend myself by saying that while hipsters guard their stockpiles of useless information like Masonic secrets, I like to turn people on to things that I have discovered, and I guess I just resent the fact that Transcendence has taken away my ability to play someone “Genesis” for the first time.

On the other hand, it was nice to see the song used in a way that reaffirmed the importance of the musical artifact as a thing to be treasured in of itself. It also illustrated how the power of those objects lies not only in the ability it give to replay and relive music, but also to share it with others in a more intimate way than via networks. I know I’m a bit out of touch, but “Hey man, I want to play you this record” will always trump a link to a Spotify track or YouTube clip any day of the week. So, in spite of the fact that I heard the song probably one too many times throughout the movie, I still went home and played it one more time for just my girlfriend and myself.

And at any rate, the movie isn’t doing so well. With a bit of luck, maybe the song will maintain some its semi obscure status.


Gunnar Schulze said...

Thank you for the background info about this song. I heard it the first time in the movie and I really like it. I was looking at the original movie soundtrack but couldn't find it there.

Although the movie is a typical Hollywood production, mixing up different scientific horror scenarios like the technological singularity, scary nano robots or genetic engeneering, I found it quite entertaining. It brings the question what may happen if mankind can build superhuman articifial intelligence (what is a classic theme of science fiction literature) into a modern setting that is not too far from our current reality (o.k. apart from the use of quantum computing that is not even invented yet).

Nicolas said...

Well, I also discovered the song in the movie and am very glad that I did. Since then, my relationship with the song is the same as yours: I listen to it all the time and want to share it with everybody.

Ultimately, this beautiful song reminds me of the all 70s idealistic atmosphere I grew up in (I was born in 1977), the kind of music my parents listened to on their old turntable.

(Plus it created the musical background for the most touching side of the movie: the love that the Casters feel for each others. "Transcendence" is, above all, a love story.)

lackenhauser said...

Just checked my well worn vinyl the label matches. Is not modern don't sweat it.