Director Amy Grill’s Speaking in Code is one of those particular sorts of documentaries that is supposed to be about one thing, and then it migrates when the filmmaker’s personal life starts to get in the way of the filming. Or rather, the other way ’round: the film got in the way of Grill’s personal life. At any rate, things get in the way of other things, and a movie that was supposed to be, at the outset, about the lives of people who devote themselves mind, body, and soul to electronic dance music – you get the feeling it was meant in no small part as high-spirited propaganda for the genre – ends up being not just what it says on the label, but something much more intimate and messy and human. And while there’s doubtlessly a good deal of value in Grill’s exploration of a musical underground as such, it’s the accidental subplots about world-weariness and personal disconnection that really make Speaking in Code terrifically interesting.
The project began as the dream of a married pair of Bostonians: Grill and her husband David Day, whose affection for techno music bordered on the spiritual, wanted to pay tribute to the rich underground culture surrounding that style by documenting the lives of some of the European artists they found particularly exciting. Boston being, it seems, just about the worst city in the United States to be a techno fan, Day also made it his life’s work to break the rockist stranglehold in that city, both from his job at Forced Exposure, a record distribution company, and through a series of pet projects to build a viable club culture. This left most of the European traveling to Grill and her cameraman, college student Scott Sans, who spent a great deal of time in the second half of the decade moving around Germany, the world’s most important techno nation, with a few trips to Spain.
Much of the film is thus devoted to following a number of German artists, with particular focus on a pair of duos: Modeselektor, formed by Gernot Bronsert and Sebastian Szary, and the Wighnomy Brothers, AKA Gabor Schablitzki and Sören Bodner. But Grill’s fascinated poking into the corners of the techno world involves scads of faces, from record label founders on down. But being a smart storyteller, she realised that the contrast between the two central groups formed a marvelous dichotomy: as Modeselektor rose over the course of the shoot to ever-greater heights of popularity, the Wighnomy Brothers were beginning to fray from overwork (the DVD liner notes observe that Schlablitzki and Bodner have since parted ways), giving Speaking in Code the overall structure of both the rise and the decline of a band. The filmmaker’s love for her subjects is clear at every moment: whether depicting them in the throes of creativity or just as laid-back people who take on none of the airs of artists, she is plainly delighted to be in their company, and by the end of the film it’s hard even for a complete and utter techno-ignoramus (your humble blogger must confess himself to be such) not to be tremendously happy to watch these people go about their rather interesting lives.
Along the way, all sorts of intriguing little themes crop up: techno’s relationship to the reunification of Germany, the economics of music in Europe vs. North America, and the difference between Europeans and Americans more generally. Grill doesn’t chase any of these themes very far, but there’s not the feeling that the movie is thus half-finished, for all of these little observations on the fringes give just enough context for the central drive of the film while suggesting that the sociology of the techno underground is far richer than a single documentary can capture.
While a music fancier would probably consider all of this sufficient – and by all means, it’s interesting stuff – the second half of the film starts to traffic in a much deeper, more humanistically resonant vein. Day’s obsession with bringing techno to Boston starts to border on the quixotic, and Grill’s return trips home showcase his continued frustrations both artistically and financially (financing the movie put the couple well into debt) turning into an increasing disability to interact with other people as people. It put quite a strain on the marriage, and by the end, Speaking in Code has turned into something of a thriller, where finding out if Grill and Day were able to hang together through the intense stress of her love for jet-setting and Europe and his impossible dream, or if their marriage ended in the split that always seems to be just around the corner.
It’s an intensely intimate film coming and going: first, because Grill’s love for her explicit subject matter is so personally important that merely to make a techno documentary is a form of soul-searching; second, because it shows a fragmenting marriage with an unblinking honesty that wouldn’t be out of place in an Ingmar Bergman film. I cannot imagine that it was an easy project for the director to complete, and she confesses at the end that it took her months to even look at the 200+ hours of footage; but I am glad she did, for the result is not just a probing music documentary but a magnificently touching personal diary. “Speaking in Code” explicitly refers to the art of making electronic music, but it also serves as a metaphor that we can all relate to, for two people using the same language, yet unable to communicate.