Iván Castell’s passionate and absorbing documentary The Rise of the Synths explores the history of a growing sub-genre of electronic music known as synthwave. With narration from acclaimed filmmaker John Carpenter and appearances from the movement’s biggest stars, this documentary is a must-see for fans of the genre and its 1980s influences. We spoke to the film’s director about the project’s beginnings, process and future.
FJ: First of all, congratulations on the film. I absolutely loved it. Synthwave is my favourite genre of music so to see a passionate documentary feature dedicated to it was a dream come true for me. What drew you to this project? Have you always been passionate about the genre?
IC: I wasn’t a fan of the genre at all. I discovered it through a friend of mine who sent me a YouTube link to a music video from the artist 80s Stallone. It was a video with the 80s film Cobra footage synced to the artist’s Cobretti track. I didn’t understand at that moment if this was real 80s music, or some sort of prank, and I really hated that. I come from being a teenager in the 90s, so I’ve always been into guitars – and the synthesizer was the enemy back then! So, I guess I was biased by that culture.
But then, a week after that, looking for music to play in the background as I did some writing, I came back to that video and started to notice the related videos. And that’s when I discovered that there were hundreds of other bands, and an enormous fanbase who were commenting every video, fully in love with that music. I was fascinated by the scale and the engagement of it, worldwide.
FJ: That sense of scale in the movement is certainly reflected in The Rise of the Synths. The film covers a hell of a lot of ground in its 80-minute runtime. How much research and preparation did the project involve?
IC: A lot. I wasn’t really interested in the synthesizer history, and there’s already more interesting and accurate documentaries about who were the pioneers, and their techniques and achievements. I was interested in the new kids, and what drove them to make music influenced by what was then totally uncool 80s cheesy pop culture. And I wanted to get their story as accurate as possible.
What was interesting was that the movement started out as a grassroot community, that has built online since with little real human contact. Much of their story is based on what they remember happened some time ago on a particular online platform, or a video they uploaded to YouTube. We were building the film with them and their memories, so it was often quite fuzzy and challenging.
FJ: And the film is certainly packed with appearances from these ‘new kids’, now acclaimed artists in the genre. How did you go about getting so many musicians on board?
IC: It was complicated at the beginning. I was coming from nowhere, emailing them “hey I want to make a doc about synthwave, are you up to this?” and mostly they were probably not believing this was going to happen, or that this was even a serious offer! But there was a huge number of them who agreed and for most of them, it was their first time on camera, even showing their faces! Then when the project started to really take shape, another bunch of artists was very willing to get involved, so it was easier. But kudos to the first ones who believed an email from an unknown Spanish filmmaker.
We ended up with almost 30 artists featured in the film. I stuck to my initial idea of giving room to everyone, because that was how I discovered the genre – by jumping from one artist to the other very quickly, like in a YouTube rabbit hole, and I wanted to translate that into the film itself.
FJ: Perhaps one of the biggest talking points surrounding the film is the involvement of the legendary filmmaker and musician John Carpenter, who narrates the film. How did his involvement come about?
IC: To cut a long story short, we emailed his agent at the very beginning of the project, explaining that I wanted him to be the narrator. We didn’t know what to expect, but I knew that if there was a narrator, it had to be John. They replied very quickly, and he was interested. After that, there was a long period where we had to show that the film was actually going to be made (because the narration was going to be the last thing to shoot)!
But he and his team were always willing to be part of it, and I’m really grateful for it. The film wouldn’t have been the same without him. I think he elevates the film, and it gives everything a whole other meaning to have him talking directly to the audience.
FJ: The film is just as much about the visuals as it is the music, boasting a stunning aesthetic befitting of the synthwave movement. Parts of it almost feel like a music video. Can you tell us a little bit about what drew you to the highly stylized approach of the film?
IC: If we’re going to talk about the 80s, we need to make it pump visually! I mean, movies from that era are what influence those composers, so I really wanted to recreate the cinematography of those iconic films, with the colourful palette, framing and all.
And I also wanted to recreate that sense of getting in a YouTube rabbit hole and jumping from a city to another, from a country to another, from an artist to another, from an era to another, where in the end you don’t know where you are anymore – but you’re embracing that nostalgia overload feeling. So, it had to be visually powerful. The whole film is a metaphor for the warm journey of discovery that’s going happen the moment you hit “play” on a YouTube synthwave clip.
FJ: The film was clearly an incredibly passionate project filled with love, and that is reflected in the finished product. Was that your intention with the film?
IC: It’s a love letter to art-making. It’s not only about making music, it can be translated into any type of art. No matter how lonely you think you are in your bedroom, making some weird art in your little corner of the world, you can connect with anyone. And that’s really powerful.
This subculture is the perfect example of that. Nobody believed in what they were doing, not even themselves, they were doing it for the fun of it. And here we are, still talking about it years later. I don’t think College or the guys from Rosso Corsa thought this was going to happen when they were uploading their retro throwback tracks to MySpace.
FJ: And finally, for those unfamiliar with synthwave, what would you say is an essential album or artist to get people into the genre?
IC: Miami Nights 1984’s Turbulence.
Following sold-out screenings around the world and the successful Synthrider Festival online, The Rise of the Synths is being made available as part of a special edition DVD, Blu-Ray or VHS for a very limited time only! For more information, visit theriseofthesynths.com.