Review by Sean Boelman
The origins of electronic music are particularly fascinating because it is unlike anything else. Lisa Rovner’s documentary Sisters with Transistors may be a bit conventional in how it tells these extraordinary women’s stories, but the subjects are more than interesting enough themselves to make for a fascinating film.
In the movie, Rovner tells the story of some of the pioneering women of the electronic music genre and explores how they used unique and innovative methods to create their distinctive sound. The film is at its best when it shows the musicians at work, making music in ways that don’t seem like they should be possible.
Understandably, not everyone is going to enjoy this movie because electronic music is a bit of an acquired taste. However, one can’t help but be in awe of the raw creativity that this art represents. To think of creating music with technology that is new in its own right is absolutely exceptional.
Perhaps Rovner’s biggest mistake is that she takes a historical approach to the film, trying to comprehensively tell the story of as many of the founders of the style as possible. Arguably, the moive would have been much more effective had it focused less on their individual contributions and more on the growth of the medium as a whole.
That said, Rovner does an excellent job of making the audience appreciate the impact this group of musicians had not only on electronic music, but the industry as a whole. One of the more intriguing things about the film is the way in which it looks at its subjects not just as artists, but also as inventors creating new technology for their art.
Obviously, the main angle taken by Rovner explores the role of these women as the main driving force in the creation of an entire genre of music in a field that was then-dominated by men. It’s an empowering story, but it also doesn’t reduce them to being simply female musicians, making a case for their importance regardless of their gender.
Most of the movie is composed of archive footage accompanied by narration. Ultimately, the film probably would have worked better without the narration, because to this point, there hasn’t been enough of an opportunity to see artists like these in their element. The editing is very good, though, lending the movie a very natural rhythm.
One will be left wishing that Sisters with Transistors was as avant garde as the music of the people whose lives it depicts, but the story is interesting regardless. Especially for those who don’t know about the invention of electronic music, this is absolutely a must-see.
Sisters with Transistors screened at the 2020 AFI FEST which ran October 15-22.