From ‘Halloween’ to ‘Drive’ and beyond, the documentary that charts the rise of synthwave

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From ‘Halloween’ to ‘Drive’ and beyond, the documentary that charts the rise of synthwave

Words by Tom Parker

How familiar are you with the music phenomenon, synthwave?

Since the early 2000s, the synthwave genre has captured the imagination of electronic enthusiasts the world over. First pioneered by the likes of composers, John Carpenter, Jean-Michel Jarre, Giorgio Moroder and Tangerine Dream, during the 1980s, synthwave has since been championed by a multitude of video games, films and TV series while also pervading contemporary music.

Stranger Things is one TV series that stands out as a notable purveyor of synthwave – the band SURVIVE taking the genre to sinister, unearthly heights through the famed sci-fi horror. Alongside that, renowned synthwave artists include Pertubator, The Midnight and Gunship.

To celebrate the cult-like rise of a slant of music characterised by danceable, ethereal beats that are often minimalist in nature, revered filmmaker and editor Ivan Castell has brought us a documentary that’s quintessential to the genre, The Rise of the Synths.

Castell’s first connection with synthwave came in 2013. Ironically enough, Castell sneered at early listenings before his discovery of the genre’s immeasurable fandom had him hooked.

“I was working on a friend’s video in 2013,” Castell begins. “He is a photographer and he sent me a couple of YouTube links with some music he wanted me to use. The first one was from an artist called 80s Stallone, titled ‘Cobretti’. It was really ’80s cheesy-synth … but I didn’t know if this was modern music or just some old soundtrack. Coming from metal and rock, I hated it.

“I started to look at the related videos of that 80s Stallone video and it led me down a rabbit hole for hours, of what was called then retrowave,” Castell continues. “What grabbed my attention were the comments in all those videos, and how big it was and spread all over the world.

“It really wasn’t trendy back then, the ’80s were absolutely denied for a long time, so all these people sticking to an “uncool” subculture was really interesting. People were really passionate about it and I really didn’t understand why, and that was the spark that eventually led me to make this film.”

The Rise of the Synths features narration from Carpenter (HalloweenThe Fog, The Thing) and joins a group of composers from different countries on their synthwave journey – one that began as an innocuous concept and with the help of MySpace and other social networks, became the phenomenon it is today.

So what was Castell’s vision for the film? What did he want to achieve? What emotions did he want exhume from the viewer? Well, Castell wanted to facilitate the experience he had when he discovered synthwave.

“I fell in love with this music, and when I discovered it, I started to send tracks to a lot of my filmmaker friends and they all had the same reaction: ‘What is this music? I can’t get enough of it?’ or ‘It sounds like a movie soundtrack, it’s so inspiring’,” Castell says, “[Then] they all wanted more band names and they started to recommend it to their own friends.

“So in a way, I wanted to recreate the same trajectory I had in my discovery journey – the rabbit hole, the jumping from one band to another, the passion of the fans, the need to know more about the people making the music.

“I just wanted them to feel the nostalgia, like I did. The atmosphere it creates and how it works when it hits you. I wasn’t interested in telling how this music is done, and all the technicalities behind it, the film is about embracing the feeling.”

The Rise of the Synths is being screened as part of the Melbourne Documentary Film Festival (MDFF), on from now until August 2. In previous years, MDFF was a physical event hosted by numerous Melbourne cinemas but given the disruptions caused by COVID-19, they have gracefully adapted to a video-on-demand format.

With viewing prices ranging from $8 for one stream up to $100 for unlimited screenings, you can sign up for the number of screenings you wish to see, and tuck in to your own curated selection, whenever you want, wherever you want.

Watch The Rise of the Synths as part of the Melbourne Documentary Film Festival, on from now until Sunday August 2. Score yourself some tickets to the festival here.

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