The Rise of the Synths review – the world's most nostalgic music scene

This documentary exploring the 80s-obsessed synthwave sound has admirable production values, but trades deep analysis for platitudes and boring asides

If you have ever strutted around in sunglasses and a silken bomber jacket, and didn’t even have to try to keep a straight face, chances are you’re into synthwave. This subcultural genre of music, characterised by anthemic analogue synth lines, is explored in this stylish but shallow documentary.

The partly crowdfunded film makes a reverse historical sweep of the genre, ending where the music started with the sober, even ascetic work of Kraftwerk and Tangerine Dream. This was gloriously cheapened by Giorgio Moroder, who made the sound aspirational and decadent, inspiring not only pop but also film soundtracks, where synth sounds were easy signifiers for the future. The style fell out of favour as the 90s embraced guitars again, but Daft Punk became the key act to bring it back – their light-up pyramid stage set is the defining icon of the synthwave aesthetic – and influenced a host of new producers.

Social media and blogging play their parts, as people start to share their fetish for the neon lights and kitsch fonts of the 80s as well as the music. Stranger Things, today’s most 80s-nostalgic pop culture, has a theme that is pure synthwave; another key moment is the 2011 Nicolas Winding Refn film Drive, which deployed a synthwave soundtrack and, married to the nihilistic glamour of Ryan Gosling’s lead character, cemented its hipster kudos. Perhaps the best definition is music that makes you feel cool while walking at night.

Director Iván Castell employs a diverse and global set of talking heads, which gives a sense how far the genre has pervaded, aided by the internet – he hops from New York and Toronto to Antwerp, Grenoble and beyond. Unfortunately, many are given to platitudes of the “just make the music you want to make” variety, or asides such as “I used Fruity Loops [production software] for Christ’s sake!” which will baffle anyone but their fellow nerds, who are perhaps the only viable audience for this film. Leading lights of the scene such as Kavinsky, Johnny Jewel, M83 or Survive are conspicuously absent.

John Carpenter in The Rise of the Synths
Sensei-like … John Carpenter in The Rise of the Synths Photograph: PR

Castell does admittedly snag John Carpenter, whose own synth scores gave such drama to Escape from New York and the rest. Carpenter is employed as a sensei-like narrator, recording his observations on to a cassette tape to be taken back in time by a Gosling-type pretty-boy street punk driving a DeLorean, in a series of impressively produced interstitial segments. This fantasy narrative gives the film its backwards-tracking structure to return to the source of synthwave, though Carpenter speaks as if he’s reading an autocue that’s been set up two yards too far away, and his rhapsodic guff about the “rebel beauty” of the genre and his wise-old-sage pronouncements – “don’t intellectualise it, it all comes down to one thing, instinct, that’s what you must keep close to you” – are classy filler.

There are some interesting moments. It’s notable how many of the producers appear anonymously, filmed in the dark or, like Gost, behind a black veil with a skull perched on his knee. One puts this introversion down to them being “bundles of self-doubt”; others say it’s to focus on the music and escape the banality of today’s image-led social media. British trio Gunship, who drive a car with a keyboard for a grille, are enjoyably forthright about how much better 80s films were versus those of the “awful, meta, self-aware” present. And while there isn’t enough unpacking of why they and other musicians are so given to nostalgia, London producer 80s Stallone admits of his passion for the past: “I had more hair – I had a future!”

•Rise of the Synths screens at Dublin Lighthouse on 14 March, then tours. For information click here.


Ben Beaumont-Thomas

The GuardianTramp

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