About 15 minutes or so into the documentary that tells the compelling story of Armen Hovanesian, the Iranian born musician who is of Armenian descent, known globally as Armen Ra, an audible gasp was heard in the theater during its premiere on Friday night, November 13th. It wasn’t clear if the sound emanated from one or multiple persons, but the fact remains that the moment came roughly six hours after the first attack was reported at the Bataclan theater in Paris, where the City of Light was still under attack in an act of terrorism so extreme that the President of France was forced to order the borders of the European nation closed. The scene that elicited such an audible emotional reaction came during Ra’s description of the events of 1978, when his family made the decision to remain in the United States because of violent demonstrations taking place in their home country of Iran. As he spoke the words onscreen, “theaters were burning”, a palpable shudder went through the audience.
“When My Sorrow Died: The Legend of Armen Ra and the Theremin” is the story of the personal and artistic journey the young boy, who had watched his home city of Tehran burn, undertook after exile and discovery in his new homeland. Ra’s recounting of his personal history is vivid, evocative, emotional and, at times, hilarious. Now considered one of the world’s preeminent masters of the otherworldly and mysterious instrument invented in the 1920’s by a Russian physicist, Léon Theremin, the young Ra began his career onstage entertaining audiences through his mastery of marionette puppets, an art requiring a level of dexterity that would serve him well in his later incarnation as a theremin prodigy. His ingenuity and precociousness saw him garner the attention of a local Boston news station that featured him in a detailed segment where he demonstrated an elaborate imagination and gift for storytelling. Partly due to these gifts, as well as a sartorial originality, the young Ra experienced intolerance and extreme bullying in his public school, and after a fight wherein he rendered one of his tormentors almost senseless, he was expelled at the young age of 14. Next stop: New York City.
Ra’s entrée into the magical land that was New York City in the early 1980’s is one of the highlights of the film. There is copious footage of the frenetic and colorful world of the club scene that held sway over the city’s downtown society for over a decade, before the dual viruses of AIDS and gentrification crept in with morbid and greedy tentacles. Ra’s story touches briefly on the loss of close friends, episodes of self destruction and the sort of wanton and carefree behaviors that can lead down potentially dark paths. But these tales are intercut with the type of anecdotes, told with the wit and cleverness of a Waugh character, that take the story to heights of hilarity that fill an entire theater with laughter. Ra is credited with the production design, and the stamp of meticulous and elevated glamour is all over the film. The lighting is superb, and of the school of old Hollywood high key lighting that made actresses like Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford, Hedy Lamar and Gene Tierney look like goddesses from another realm.
Most importantly there is the live concert footage of Ra’s performances on the theremin, accompanied by the classical pianist Masami Asahina. Here is where the film exerts its strongest pull, drawing the viewer in with the same mysterious electromagnetic forces of the performer’s instrument. Every detail of the stage, the theater and the costuming is magical, and appears choreographed with a level of perfection that seems only possible through mystical sorcery. Backgrounds and costumes morph along with the classical pieces Ra performs like a magus of electromagnetism. It is slightly surreal to witness the musician onstage today, contrasted with the earlier elaborate drag performances from Ra’s downtown clubbing days. In that early footage, the waif-like Ra flows around stages like a slender Maria Callas or Cleopatra, all long dark wigs and smoky dark-ringed eyes; today he stands motionless before his instrument, save for the lyrical movements of long slender fingers that manipulate the air and the unseen sound waves of the theremin. He peers imperiously at his audience from under long butterfly eyelashes and heavy makeup, his patrician profile contoured to perfection. The wigs have been replaced with his own hair, coiffed succinctly into a helmet of ebony sleekness accented by curlicues and finger waves.
Patricia Field, herself a still reigning queen of NYC’s downtown fashion and nightlife world, talks in the film about Ra’s meticulous appearance as being the most profound thing that she admires about him. And she ought to know, as without her stylistic guidance, “Sex and the City” would not be the standard by which many bright young things steer their fashion sense today. She is one of the icons of NYC’s downtown scene featured in the film, along with the glamorous model Amanda Lepore, who, along with Ra, comprised the dangerous duo known at the time as “Heaven and Hell”. Former lead singer and songwriter of the garage/glam band, Semi Precious Weapons, Justin Tranter, also appears onscreen, as does Ra’s mother, but it is Ra himself who takes the viewer on a fashionable, glamorous and musical journey that revels in self invention, expertise, genius, survival and redemption.
The clips of Ra’s theremin performances are worth the price of admission alone. To hear Mozart’s “Queen of the Night” from “The Magic Flute” and “Je Croix Entendre” encore/The Pearl Fishers” from Bizet and “Ebben! Ne Andro Lontana” from Catalani’s “La Wally”, along with other masterful demonstrations of the theremin’s unique translation of great classical musical works, all photographed sublimely by Gevorg Sarkisian, is an opportunity not to be missed. Ra appeared as the opening act for Nick Cave on his 2010 Grinderman tour and appears on the upcoming albums of Gwen Stefani and Selena Gomez, but there are currently no dates for live appearances on the horizon. “When My Sorrow Died: The Legend of Armen Ra and the Theremin” will play at Cinema Village until the 19th of this month.
The after party was held at Gold Bar, the exclusive nightclub from impresario Amy Sacco, of Bungalow 8 fame. The private party included members of NYC’s legendary fashion and music scene, including Tommy Boy Entertainment CEO and New Music Seminar co-founder, Tom Silverman; costume designer, stylist and fashion designer, Patricia Field; Rasa Living founder and DJ, Donna D’Cruz; Producer Matt Huffman; model Amanda Lepore; Toilet Boys’ Miss Guy; and a host of NYC’s famed club kids and trend setters. On a side note, for this regular movie goer to cinemas here in NYC, who has suffered through the seemingly interminable and soul crushing boredom of product pitches and commercials before the previews and the feature film is shown, it was sheer delight to revel in the endless derisive laughter and acerbic mockery thrown at the screen for each commercial shown before the screening, from an audience united for one purpose only; to support the premiere of a documentary of one of the world’s most unique and talented musical performers.
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When My Sorrow Died: The Legend of Armen Ra & the Theremin
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