Christopher Pomerenke’s 2009 documentary The Heart Is a Drum Machine tries and fails to answer the question “What is music?” As insufferably obtuse as its title, the film swings from the scientific to spiritual, mixing inelegant retro animations reminiscent of the original BBC adaptation of The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy with celebrity interviews and Discovery Channel-style journalistic diversions. From its attempts to draw syrupy cosmic poignancy from the tale of the golden record affixed to the Voyager spacecraft’s side to its pageant of once-hip actor-musicians (Juliette Lewis, Jason Schwartzman, Bijou Phillips) maundering about the magic of sound, it bombs in nearly every respect, to the extent that it practically makes you like music less.
Yet one blessed thing saves the film from being utter dross, lending it some much-needed coherence: its original score by Steven Drozd of The Flaming Lips. Wayne Coyne may be a songwriter, frontman, and pysch-humanist cleric of the first order, but he’s long publicly acknowledged Drozd, a colossally capable multi-instrumentalist and arranger, as the band’s musical linchpin since he signed on as a drummer in the early 90s. Onstage, while Wayne bellows polychrome smoke from a battered megaphone’s horn or clings to a towering gorilla’s back, somewhere behind him to stage right, Drozd’s making a disproportionate share of the thick sound that fills the venue. Switching nimbly from talkboxed 12-string to keys (and back) mid-song, he chirrups falsetto backup through the smog and raining confetti, mouth mirthfully agape.
Jonny Greenwood’s 2007 soundtrack to P.T. Anderson’s There Will Be Blood provided the Radiohead guitarist an ideal opportunity to prove his inestimable worth in a new arena without resorting to a typical “side project” strategy. Here, Drozd gets a similar chance, although he’s saddled with an infinitely inferior piece of celluloid with a subject that presents some major challenges to the composer — how does one write music for a documentary about music itself? The score must somehow represent music as a whole, appealing to the broad audience suggested by the film’s variety slate of interviewees while unifying scattered sequences.
Drozd’s tactic is to create a sort of elemental modern pop music. Where another composer might have crammed multifarious instruments — ethnic, orchestral, anything — into his or her accompanying tracks, Drozd doesn’t stray from his usual palette of synth sounds, barking overloaded guitar, uncomplicated percussion, and the occasional sung syllable. The result feels not unlike some of the Lips’ instrumental moments, like the great, inexplicably Grammy-winning “Approaching Pavonis Mons By Balloon” — hazily hooky yet too indefinite to get stuck in your head. “Quaalude Youth” rides a viscous riff like the ones that cropped up on At War with The Mystics and “Bad Mood Rising/Dimensionless” heads into Floyd-space with an agreeable saunter. Although somewhat ill-advised and cheesy at first glance, the slightly incongruous cover of Elton John’s “Rocket Man,” featuring vocals by Maynard James Keenan of Puscifer/Tool/A Perfect Circle, which plays out the credits, also plays to Drozd’s strengths as pop arranger. The dabbing of flanger suits Keenan’s voice; the distortion helps keep the song grounded; and the ascendant burblings of synth combat the impression of over-compression.
Never does Drozd approach the ionospheric drama of the soundtrack to Coyne’s labor-of-love sci-fi holiday movie Christmas On Mars — he keeps things light on the dissonance and murk while riding solo, even in The Heart Is a Drum Machine’s most fragment moments, like the somewhat Fennesz-sounding “Last Dose.” In fact, it’s his tendency towards the simplistic on this score that makes it both particularly suited for the searching yet vacuous film it runs over and less pleasant for out-of-context listening. “Requiem For A Dying Star/Ode To A Twinkling New…” launches megalith strums into an effects-borne void before being riddled with 8-bit runs that lead into a set of stultifying variations on “Ah! vous dirai-je, Maman” or, uh, “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.” His intent is clear: to quantize the most basic melodic ideas of human culture, running them through his queeping, blipping celestial pop machine. Alas, the product, though entirely successful in addressing the thematic content of the documentary (and effectively elevating it), bears little interest in its own right.