By the film’s own admission, Sisters with Transistors is a work of revisionist history, an attempt to correct some of the glaring omissions and misconceptions about the development of electronic music. The feature’s primary aim is to educate, to clean up the sexist static (both subtle and cacophonous) that has long obfuscated the pioneering achievements of women musicians, engineers, and composers. In this respect, writer-director Lisa Rovner’s eye-opening documentary is a resounding success. Over 86 jam-packed minutes that manage to feel both kinetic and reflective, Sisters with Transistors offers a fascinating crash course on the brilliant women who innovated at the intersection of technology and music – often with minimal recognition. Rovner generally adheres to a Great Woman Theory in articulating this history, focusing on a handful of key innovators, but a persuasive overarching thesis quickly emerges regarding the sidelining and outright erasure of women’s accomplishments.
That said, Rovner was clearly determined to make Sisters with Transistors feel like something more than a glorified Wikipedia article. It is expressive, invigorating, and even a little bit haunting in a manner that few explanatory documentaries rarely attempt, let alone achieve. Even if the viewer has already ventured into the world of avant-garde electronic music – where names like Pauline Oliveros and Maryanne Amacher will perhaps ring a bell – Rovner’s film still makes for a stimulating experience. The documentary does this partly by placing its heroines front and center, allowing the women it profiles to speak for themselves. There is some narration by composer and performance artist Laurie Anderson, but most of the words she recites seem to be those of the documentary’s subjects, who earnestly elucidate their passions, methods, and occasional justified grievances.
More conspicuously, Rovner makes liberal use of the music these women composed and performed. This is an obvious but wholly essential choice that lends Sister with Transistors a potent vibe, part interstellar symphony and part revolutionary incantation. Just as importantly, it bestows the whole documentary with the sensibility of a mixed-media work, an echo of the kind of striking, hard-to-categorize creations that the film’s subjects specialized in shaping. Such sounds might demand a mathematician’s rigor, but as theremin virtuoso Clara Rockmore explains, they also require a butterfly’s touch.
Rovner’s film generally proceeds chronologically, touching on Rockmore before giving the viewer a whirlwind tour that runs roughly from trailblazer Daphne Oram’s early 1940s work at the BBC through composer Laurie Spiegel’s development of the groundbreaking Music Mouse software in 1986. The documentary is divided into chapters, each one focusing on an individual woman. However, the film never feels overly episodic or disjointed thanks to Rovner’s script, which transitions elegantly between subjects and maintains a consistent, almost dreamy atmosphere throughout. The plodding quality that afflicts so many documentaries about history’s movers and shakers – stemming from the obligatory slog through a chronological checklist of biographical factoids, triumphs, and setbacks – is mostly absent here.
Instead, Sisters with Transistors offers an experience that is enfolding, relying on archival photos, recordings, and footage to create something like an immersive cinematic tribute to its subjects’ glorious obsessions. The aim is not so much to present a sketch of the musicians’ lives as it is to persuade through sensation, to assert the greatness of these women by weaving their enthralling and innovative work into the fabric of the film. Although the result is a documentary that at times sacrifices insight for artistry – the more traditional but also more critically astute Tina offers an illustrative contrast in this regard – Rovner achieves something uncommon and perhaps more satisfying for the music-doc connoisseur. Sisters with Transistors thrums with the same creative energy that defines the work of its subjects, proffering not just a primer on a group of overlooked women but also an energizing work of documentary cinema that harmonizes with its subjects’ artistic spirit.
Sisters with Transistors is now available to stream via virtual cinema from the Metrograph.