Interview: Dianna Dilworth, Director of 'Mellodrama', a Must-See Film for Music Geeks

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When the Chamberlin keyboard made its debut more than 50 years ago, Harry Chamberlin intended for it to revolutionize home entertainment. Little did he know that his invention would change the landscape of rock 'n' roll forever. By incorporating eight-second sound clips into an electro-mechanical keyboard, he essentially created the first music sampler.

The instrument was soon followed by the Mellotron, which emerged after one of Chamberlin's employees stole two units and created a new version of the instrument in England. Over the last half-century, these keyboards have made appearances on everything from the Beatles' "Strawberry Fields Forever" to Kanye West's "Gold Digger."

Documentary filmmaker Dianna Dilworth has captured the excitement and the drama of these temperamental instruments in her film Mellodrama. Through old movie clips and new interviews with musicians such as Brian Wilson, Mike Pinder and Jon Brion, it's easy to see why the Chamberlin and Mellotron have gained a cult following. LAist caught up with Dilworth last week to learn more about this fascinating film, which will make its Los Angeles debut this Saturday night at the Cinefamily on Fairfax.

LAist: What is it about these two instruments that inspires such devotion, and catches people off guard when they first hear it?

Dianna Dilworth: The Mellotron was supposed to replicate an orchestra, but it never quite achieved that. Instead, it created this very haunting, cool, creepy music—it sounds like the ghost of an orchestra.

In that sense, it's something not quite right coupled with something familiar. You recognize flute sounds and you recognize violin sounds, but this isn’t quite a flute player or violin player. When people first heard "Strawberry Fields Forever" they wondered, "What is that flute-like sound? Is it distortion? How are they manipulating it?" And the truth was, they weren't manipulating it. The Mellotron itself was the manipulation.

How did you first stumble upon the Mellotron in the 90s?

At the time, I was living in Sweden and had a part-time job making the new Mellotrons. I'd also been aware of them because I had friends who played and collected them. So I knew they existed, but I got to learn about the inner workings when I crossed paths with Markus Retch [of the Mellotron Archives].

As a journalist, you cover the tech beat, and this is old-school technology. If you'd lived back in the 50s or 60s, do you think you would have covered the Mellotron or Chamberlin when they made their debuts?

Yeah, I'm definitely attracted to these types of things. When the Chamberlin debuted, it was supposed to change things—and in a way, it did. The idea that a keyboard could replicate the sounds of other instruments was groundbreaking. Today we take for granted that keyboards come with hundreds of sounds. However, back when Harry Chamberlin was dreaming up the idea, it was a whole new concept.

Of course, it also didn't quite deliver as well as it was supposed to. The original intention was to replace orchestras and that never happened, and the people who dreamed it up—Harry Chamberlin and even the folks over at the Mellotron company—were marketing for home use. The instruments were just too expensive and weird, and didn't work well for people who weren't musicians.


'Mellodrama' trailer

In speaking with all the musicians in the film, did you get the feeling that in comparing the Chamberlin and Mellotron, it's a "Mac vs. PC" or "Coke vs. Pepsi" preference? Or do most of them have equal respect for the instruments?

It's definitely a Mac vs. PC thing; most prefer one or the other. The instruments sound and play a little bit differently [the Chamberlin is known for its higher fidelity sounds, while many people think the Mellotron is technically superior]. They're manufactured differently, so you get a different feeling out of playing each one.

That said, it does seem like people who play the Chamberlin have also played the Mellotron or even own one. Overall, Mellotrons tend to be more popular because more of them were produced.

Getting back to that Mac vs. PC thing, the white 70s Mellotron that graces your film's DVD cover is similar to the Mac design aesthetic!

Yes, and that's what most people think of when they think of a Mellotron—the white M400—but there are actually a number of different models.

There are now a couple Mellotron apps in the iTunes store. What do you think of those?

I think they're cool. I know of two—the Ellatron and the Manetron—and have them on my phone. It's great that you can have this big old crazy instrument on your iPhone. Obviously, it's an app and it's not the real thing, but it's still pretty impressive.

Hopefully more and more of the quirky Mellotron/Chamberlin sounds will be added to those apps. I enjoyed how your film showcased some of those sounds. In your opinion, is the bumblebee tape the quirkiest one?

That’s definitely the weirdest one I found. But there are some crazy ones out there, as well as some of the rarer ones like the Chamberlin harps and wine glasses. They just sound beautiful. Harry was really up to recording a lot of different sounds.

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Brian Wilson reacquaints himself with the Mellotron.
It seems like people really get creative with Mellotron sounds, and even make up a bunch of their own…

Absolutely. Some of them even use the sounds of the machine itself. When you're playing, the physical tape will snap back to its original position and make a sound. Many times, you'll hear that on a recording and people seem to like that.

In the film, Tony Banks from Genesis tells me about how he likes to move the tape in between sounds to get a strange, grungy noise. That just adds to the instrument's charm. Once you realize you're not replicating an orchestra, it opens up a whole new world and you think, "OK, what weird can we do with this?"

Since the release of the film, have you heard from any people who have taken up the Mellotron or Chamberlin as a result of watching your work?

Actually, in making the film, it seems that many of these interviews resulted in a number of the musicians getting back into Mellotrons. Fabio Frizzi, whom I interviewed in Rome, actually bought a Mellotron after I filmed him. He composes music for Italian films and TV, so I can't wait to watch some Italian soap operas with Mellotron in them!

It was fun watching that DVD extra where you had to transport the Mellotron from the streets of Rome up to a roof. That was a lot of work.

That was a crazy day because there was a marathon going on and we couldn't cross the road. Fabio—with his arms flailing about—was trying to talk to a police officer to explain our situation. And there was a woman who was part of a wedding who was also trying to plead her case.

So there we were with a Mellotron, people running all around us, a woman in wedding garb, and a policeman yelling "No" at everyone—it was like being in a Fellini movie! Half of me was worried and half of me couldn't stop laughing because it was such a ridiculous scene.

We were told we'd have to wait until the evening, but we didn't have that much time. After half an hour, we finally convinced him and we were allowed to cross the street.

It's amazing to hear the stories of people like Michael Penn and Patrick Warren who got to hang out and learn from Harry Chamberlin and have him create sounds for them. It's almost like hearing from a violinist who studied under Jascha Heifetz.

Absolutely. Those guys really got to know Harry, and they're keeping his music alive. Patrick's work is incredible, especially in the way he uses the instrument—he uses it like a full instrument, not just a keyboard.

And then there's Woody Jackson, who does all that crazy experimental stuff at the end of the film. He's actually working with the Chamberlin family now and doing some instrument restoration work.

When we first met, I asked him what he did, and he said, "I'm the Chamberlin intern." I later got to visit his home and realized he's a musician who plays on all these big soundtracks, but I just love that—to him—the most important thing he wanted to point out was the Chamberlin internship.

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The inner workings of a Mellotron MK II.

California seems to have played a major role in the history of the Chamberlin. Why do you think the state has been such a good fit?

I was just reading a book by Kevin Starr, who was the state librarian and has written a lot of California history books. He wrote about the era Harry Chamberlin was coming up in, and there's certainly a connection to home tinkerers and home invention. Surfboards, computers and all kinds of things can be traced back to people tinkering in their workshops and garages.

I love that that's part of the story—there's a connection to the time and place where Harry was. He did live in the Midwest when he first started dreaming up the idea, but then he moved out to Rancho Cucamonga and the idea came to fruition.

What can people expect from the Los Angeles debut of Mellodrama this Saturday night at the Cinefamily?

In addition to the screening, there will be a Q&A afterward, and a short performance by Brian Kehew [of the Moog Cookbook]. A lot of people from the film will be in the audience, so it'll be really fun!

What's your favorite music-related documentary?

There's a film called Off the Charts that's a documentary about song-poems. It was something that was popular during the 50s, particularly in Nashville and Memphis.

The concept was this: There'd be an ad in the back of the paper saying something like, "Send in your song and we'll write it!" So a consumer could send in lyrics and have a full band write the music, record the song and send them a record of it.

It was this weird way of saying "You can make it in the music industry!" Of course, nobody actually took that route to get into the industry. It was this strange business that took advantage of people who wanted to become stars.

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Markus Retch in 'Mellodrama'
Speaking of your work in general, is there a theme that runs throughout your films?

With We Are the Children [Dilworth's 2007 documentary about Michael Jackson fans] and Mellodrama, I was really fascinated with going behind the scenes of popular culture. I like taking something mainstream like Michael Jackson or the Beatles and focusing on a periphery that rarely gets major attention.

With the Mellotron, most people have heard a Mellotron, but most haven't heard of a Mellotron. I wanted to explore that sliver of the Beatles' music. When it came to Michael Jackson, there was so much coverage of his trial and his public life, but then there were these people living on the outskirts of all that. There may have been articles here and there, but I wanted to explore it in-depth.

Might you ever produce a full-length follow-up documentary to We Are the Children to catch up with the people you interviewed earlier—to see how the passing of Michael Jackson has affected their lives?

I don't know if I'll do anything full-length, but I made an online short after he passed away. I went out and reconnected with a lot of the fans around the time of his funeral.

What's next for you, documentary-wise?

I've just started filming a documentary on neon lighting and its influence. It's in the early stages, so we'll see which direction it takes!

Since you'll be coming to LA soon, what are some of your favorite things to do while you're in town?

I like to visit Neptune's Net in Malibu, Largo at the Coronet, the Rainbow Bar & Grill…and I love going downtown. I also discovered this great place the last time I was in LA—an original panorama movie theater. It’s sort of pre-cinema, and it's essentially these panoramic storytelling frames.

How does it work?

There’s a sketch on a piece of fabric that's on a roll as big as a movie screen, and someone reads a story and shows the frame. There's live music, and the frames move as the story progresses. It's one of the most impressive things I've ever seen in Los Angeles and it made me think, "I want to move here!"

Thanks for speaking with LAist, Dianna!

Tickets for Saturday night's 7 p.m. screening of Mellodrama at the Cinefamily are on sale now for $10. If you can't make it in person, DVDs are available for purchase here.