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Review: Sisters with Transistors Pays Thrilling Tribute to Unsung Heroines

Much of the film’s power comes from a series of deft, often wry juxtapositions between video and audio.

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Sisters with Transistors
Photo: Metrograph Pictures

Lisa Rovner’s electrifying Sisters with Transistors is as unorthodox as its subject matter: electronic music’s female innovators from the mid-20th-century forward. The documentary is almost completely made up of archival footage of pioneers like Suzanne Ciani and Delia Derbyshire at work, all set to audio snippets of new and old interviews with these individuals (and an array of other musicians) that contextualize their trailblazing achievements. But the film more than just attests to their innovations, such as how they utilized their backgrounds in mathematics to push the limits of proto-computers by turning them into musical instruments. It also fiercely acknowledges how their efforts to elevate a burgeoning genre into serious art were denigrated by snobby and sexist music institutions.

Through its kinetic assembly of various archival sources, combined with a tapestry of musical samples and disembodied voices, the film captures the thrill of discovery and innovation that the interviewees frequently describe. And it’s easy to see how that exhilaration might have been muted had Rovner not largely done away the jargon associated with the computer instruments featured in the film. Indeed, there’s the sense that the director is more enchanted by her subjects’ thoughts on their music’s artistry than the technology that made it possible.

Much of the film’s power comes from a series of deft, often wry juxtapositions between video and audio, particularly when subjects recount the institutional sexism they faced. Throughout, Rovner conflates the general with the specific, as when she overlays archival footage depicting women seemingly content with their subservient occupational and social positions with recollections of frustrating individual experiences in the music and computer industries. The footage is ludicrous in its antiquated depiction of women—an impression that Rovner undercuts and reframes by providing soundbites that illustrate the arduous reality the subjects endured simply by refusing to be like the women glimpsed on screen.

The film’s only stumble is its conspicuously tacked-on coda, which briefly checks in on Ciani, Laurie Spiegel, and Éliane Radigue. While the denouement finds the musicians offering thoughts on the work that still needs to be done in the music industry for women to be taken as seriously as men, the jarring use of newly shot footage flirts with the kind of hagiography that the film had successfully avoided up to this point. With camerawork that reverently gazes at the musicians coupled with inspirational music cues, Rovner makes her subjects appear almost god-like in stature. This coda is meant to honor those devoted to expanding artistic boundaries, but it’s ultimately redundant, as the idiosyncratic form that’s the default mode of Sisters with Transistors already spiritedly embodies that ingenuity.

Director: Lisa Rovner Screenwriter: Lisa Rovner Distributor: Metrograph Pictures Running Time: 85 min Rating: NR Year: 2020

“Tell the truth but tell it slant”
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