Suppose you were married and one of you was a documentary filmmaker while the other was really into electronic dance music. You decided to combine your interests and make a documentary about the music. You then lined up an impressive list of people who agreed to participate in the film including DJs and producers Modeselektor and the Wighnomy Brothers, DJ, producer and founder and owner of the BPitch record label Ellen Allien, producer, co-founder and owner of the highly respected Kompakt record label Wolfgang Voigt, and Robert Henke aka Monolake, co-founder of Ableton, and co-designer of the original Ableton Live.
With these people on board, think of the documentary you could make about electronic dance music! You could focus on the music itself, or the technology used to make the music, or the business of making, playing and selling the music. Amy Grill, the film maker who made Speaking in Code, didn’t do any of these things. You first get an idea that Speaking in Code might turn out to be a great opportunity wasted very early in the film when Grill’s voice over tells you that she decided not to focus on the music but on the people. Okay, so you make a documentary that focuses on what life in the electronic dance world is like for the people who produce and play the music. Grill didn’t really make that film either. Instead she made a documentary that is largely about . . . Amy Grill and her then-husband David Day.
Speaking in Code is almost literally a pointless film. There’s no unifying idea that structures the documentary. It’s as if they had the idea to make a documentary about electronic dance music and that’s as far as they got. They spent a lot of money (Speaking in Code has many, many segments of Day (the husband) whining about the state of their finances), shot a lot of aimless film, and ended up with, well, a lot of aimless film. With no coherent ideas about the music, the production of the music or the business of the music to give their footage some structure they decided to make it about “the people” and the people they decided to make it about was themselves.
All of the people mentioned in the first paragraph above do appear in Speaking in Code but very little of interest is done with them. For example, in addition to interviews with Wolfgang Voigt it looks like the film makers were given fairly good access to the people and the business of at Kompakt Records. What we get in the film is someone leading Day through the Kompakt record store saying “This is the section devoted to X type of music and that is the section devoted to Y type of music” while Day looking awestruck says things like “Wow! This is the greatest record store in the world!” That’s about as deep as the insight and analysis of the subject matter gets.
As far as what life in the electronic dance music world is like we get the camera following someone around who is saying things like “This is the room where I made this track” and “This is the new urinal we have in the bathroom” (I’m not making this up). We get a lot of “we’re all one big happy family” accompanied by film of the big happy family eating together. And so on. It’s almost as if for all that they’ve immersed themselves in the world of dance music, the film makers really don’t know, or don’t want to know, very much about it. It’s all “here we are with this famous DJ”, and “here we are in this famous DJs toilet” and “here we are in this really cool record store”, and “here I am on the plane flying to Europe to go clubbing (again . . and again . . . and . . .).
The film includes a segment of Robert Henke opening what appears to be a version of Henke’s Monodeck, a sophisticated midi-controller for live performance that looks like it might have been a prototype of Akai’s APC40 controller for Ableton Live. Henke is clearly excited about the arrival of the Monodeck yet Grill doesn’t ask him what it is, what it does or why he’s excited about it. She basically ignores it. A bonus feature extended interview with Wolfgang Voigt has him happy and interested to talk about electronic dance music in general, how it has developed over time, and how he sees Kompakt fitting into the larger electronic music picture. From this short segment you can see that you could have made an interesting documentary built around Voigt and Kompakt alone. Grill didn’t even include it in the film. One of the things Voigt talks about is the limitation on roles for women in the electronic dance music business. Grill conducts several interviews with one of those women, Ellen Allien, but doesn’t ask her anything about this.
Instead of anything that might be of interest to people who are interested in electronic dance music we get more and more focus on Grill and Day as the film goes on. More interview time is given to Day than to anyone else in the film – or maybe it just seems that way because his role in Speaking in Code is more about relationship drama than about music. Even when other people are allowed to speak, Grill’s documentary voice over tends to be about what it all means for her and for her deteriorating relationship with her husband. Okay, if the film is going to be fundamentally about Grill and Day’s relationship, is there something especially interesting about the end of their marriage as documented in Speaking in Code? Not really. From what we see in the film it looks like they went through what very commonly happens when people get involved in a serious relationship when they are fairly young and fairly inexperienced in making a life with another, grow apart, find themselves unable or unwilling to make the adjustments and commitments necessary to come back together and deepen the relationship to a new level, and split up. While these events are of profound importance for the two people involved, they are also a common and unexceptional learning experience that many people have undergone for themselves. Perhaps a suitable subject for a scripted film but this is supposed to be a documentary about electronic dance music.
Speaking in Code comes across as the kind of film you get when a Facebook-addicted, it’s-all-about-me kind of person makes a documentary. If you get a voyeuristic thrill out of watching the sad decline and dissolution of a marriage, Speaking in Code might get you off. If you’re interested in electronic dance music, be forewarned. If Speaking in Code had been made with an idea about some aspect of electronic dance music that could have given the film structure and coherence, it could have been a very interesting documentary. But it wasn’t, and it isn’t.