If describing music can't capture the emotions music evokes, then making a movie that talks about writing music must reside somewhere between sculpting an opera and cooking with Frank Lloyd Wright.
Yet there's probably no better way of describing music's regenerative powers and fleshing out its abstract properties than through the equally powerful and abstract medium of film. Phoenix-based producers Ryan Page and Hans Fjellestad have done that several times already, most notably with 2005 documentary Moog (about the legendary synthesizer) and the 2002 movie Frontier Life (which covered the Tijuana music scene). In trying to make a documentary about music that hasn't been done before, they approached Christopher Pomerenke, who'd been in Valley bands Runaway Diamonds and Less Pain Forever, about directing just such an endeavor. The result is The Heart Is a Drum Machine, which will make its world première on Friday, February 6, at Phoenix Art Museum.
"We're kind of likening music to food and shelter in this movie," says Page. "We proposed, in a soft way, that maybe music is something more physical, something within our own manifestation, that possibly, we're introduced to rhythm through our mother's heartbeat in the womb."
Pomerenke continues the thought: "And when we depart from our mother that sad, sad day, we carry on that beat with our heartbeats. And that all matter is vibrating, and the planets are moving in concert with each other, and that music isn't just some television box or some painting."
It's a pity that Pomerenke is sequestered behind the camera throughout The Heart Is a Drum Machine because his unique ideas about music are as funny, heartfelt, and just plain weird as those of many celebrity participants who sat down and tried to answer, "What is music?"
In all, more than 100 people were interviewed for the film, including Matt Sorum of Guns N' Roses/Velvet Revolver, deaf musicians, Juliette Lewis, Wayne Coyne of the Flaming Lips, George Clinton, Elijah Wood, and Maynard James Keenan of Tool, who offers — during a tension-ratcheting segment in which the subject doesn't even speak his words — one of the more riveting explanations of how music is based on tension.
To collect the impressions, Page, Pomerenke, and Fjellestad traveled as far southwest as San Diego and as far northeast as Ithaca, New York.
"We shot there with Carl Sagan's wife, Ann Druyan," says Page. "A big part of this movie — when we were looking into what is music — begins and ends with The Voyager Golden Record that was mounted on the Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 space probes. Ann selected the music for the Golden Record, which includes Beethoven, Chuck Berry, Louis Armstrong, and Senegalese percussion."
Other subtexts explored in depth in the movie include music as rebellion, how deaf musicians can make music, and how children instinctively are musical and will make music until a curmudgeon tells them they aren't doing it correctly. An unlikely spokesman for music appreciation for children, Matt Sorum, tells a touching story of how he used to be judgmental about the Backstreet Boys until he saw how their music had a positive effect on a 14-year-old girl. Given this altruistic appreciation for teen and tween pop, the film cuts to the least-sympathetic interviewees in the film, Phoenix Stone and Sybil Hall, the producers behind tween pop like Backstreet Boys, 'N Sync, and Varsity Fanclub. To hear them talking about branding, merchandising, and a teen star's five-year shelf life while their latest protégé sits mute in the background, as if the protégé were a can of beans waiting to be priced, leaves one with a soiled, uneasy feeling. Worse, you can't get the damned song they're working on out of your head.
"That's the segment that people who've seen the interview footage had the strongest reaction to," is all Page will say. To an outsider, Stone and Hall's message that music is a brand, to be cross-marketed with pillowcases and lunchboxes, seems to go against the many testimonials of people who relate to music on a spiritual level.
"Music isn't an external form of entertainment; music isn't even that controllable," says Pomerenke. "I have Huey Lewis in my head right now — 'the heart of rock 'n' roll is still beating' — and I can't get it out of my head. And Huey Lewis isn't in the room. He's inside of me. I wish he was in the room right now," he mumbles, making a fist.
Early in the filming, Fjellestad suggested that bands and specific recordings were not referenced in the descriptions of what music is. Then, Pomerenke briefly entertained the odd idea of music being completely absent from the film.
"We liked the idea of people being parched for music, but we dropped that right away," he says.
Instead, they approached Steven Drozd of the Flaming Lips to score the film. "Normally, a composer comes at the end and scores it," says Page. "But we decided we didn't want that, [so we] had him compose the entire score without seeing one frame of the film." As a bonus, Maynard James Keenan enjoyed his experience with the filmmakers so much that he and Drozd collaborated on a cover of Elton John's "Rocket Man."
The experience of defining music confirmed all three men's original impulse of what music is without contradicting any of them. But two people put their appreciation on a whole new level. One was G.E. Stinson, a white blues musician who was suggested by Fjellestad and the other was John Frusciante of Red Hot Chili Peppers.
"He really floored us. We'd already gotten so many rich interviews, but he was . . . If music is here," says Pomerenke, holding his extended palm over his head, "then he was underneath it from the get-go," he adds, dropping his hand to his chest. "We talked to him for an hour and a half. We only got two questions in, but it doesn't matter, because he gave us the best interview of anybody. He talked about his cats. He went to some analyst primarily because he was concerned about how his cats appreciated his music."
"What his analyst told him," says Page, "was that his cats probably get some warm, loving feeling from his music but [that] music is time-based and cats don't have that understanding that it's starting here and ending here."
"Hans said we could probably make a movie just out of what he said," nods Pomerenke.
Don't hold your breath waiting for My Dinner with Frusciante anytime soon. The team's follow-up to The Heart Is a Drum Machine has already been green-lit, a documentary on Maynard James Keenan's winery. "We're gonna be shooting there for a whole year straight. The whole harvest, from dormant to in the bottle," says Pomerenke. "It's called The Grapes of Wrath."
Given all he's learned about his longstanding obsession and having made an uplifting film about the creative process in the bargain, is Pomerenke any closer to defining what music is for himself?
"It's a brain-scrambler to be sure. Some people nailed it — others were silent for 30 seconds," he says trailing off before giving up.
"I wouldn't have any clue. I would not want to be in this movie," he laughs. "I would offer nothing."