Melbourne Documentary Film Festival 2020: Interview with Iván Castell, Director of THE RISE OF THE SYNTHS

The best way to describe Iván Castell‘s neon-soaked, the globe-trotting documentary The Rise of the Synths, is if you flew the classic time-traveling Delorean from Back To The Future through every significant chapter of Synthwave history-making stops for those who kickstarted the musical movement in the 70’s to the beguiled generation it spawned – guided by the gruff but reliable voice of John Carpenter, whose minimalistic analog synths practically birthed the whole genre.

Touching base with dozens of the hottest Synthwave artists, this partially-crowdfunded project delves into the music’s recent revival with a vibrant slickness, principally focusing on the seismic rippling effect of the soundtracks of the nostalgic, 80’s-infused strands of pop culture that have emerged in the 2000s like the television series Stranger Things, Nicholas Winding Refn’s Drive and Daft Punk’s Tron Legacy score.

Ahead of its Australian debut at the Melbourne Documentary Film Festival, I had the chance to talk with Iván Castell about his new documentary, the return of the 80’s aesthetic in cinema, the nightmare of copyright clearances and how he secured such an immense number of subjects to chat Synthwave with.

Alex Lines for Film Inquiry: How did The Rise of Synths come to be?
Iván Castell: A friend sent me a couple of Youtube videos because he wanted me to put that type of music on a video of him I was working on. It was “80s Stallone – Cobretti”, and I thought he was playing me a prank because when I saw the cheesy music synced to old footage from the movie Cobra I didn’t understand what I was watching. I didn’t know it was new music. I didn’t pay too much attention to it, to be honest because I was not into synth music at all.
Melbourne Documentary Film Festival 2020: Interview with Iván Castell, Director of THE RISE OF THE SYNTHS
source: Melbourne Documentary Film Festival
But a few days after that I came back to that video and started to look at the related videos and discovered all of these bands with crazy names and 80s covers like Com Truise, Dance with the Dead, Droid Bishop, Betamaxx etc and how many comments were made on the videos. I was reading all these emotional comments about how that music had changed their lives and how great it was, and I realize there was a whole world out there I didn’t know about and I didn’t understand, so I decided to make a film to try to understand.
When were you first aware of Synthwave, and what was it about the genre that continued to fascinate and interest you?
Iván Castell: As I mentioned it was because of that 80s Stallone track, around 2013. What continues to fascinate me is the emotional response it has on people. I’ve never seen anything like that in other genres, even the ones I’ve been really into as a teenager. The spark it brings to people is very real, and it’s very unique even if you don’t understand it at first or you overlook it as “oh, it’s old folks remembering the 80s”. It’s way much more than that. Watching this grassroots community growing exponentially for the last 6 years has been incredible.
This is quite the globe-trotting, exhaustive exploration, what was the process of collating such a large number of musical artists – especially those who wished to appear anonymous?
Iván Castell: It was fascinating to bring so many people in front of the camera and I’m really grateful for all these artists that accepted to be interviewed on camera for the first time. These are people who are not into this (for the most part) as a career choice, they don’t live from that, they have other jobs etc. so they are very private and that’s why they used avatars.
As for the large number of people interviewed, it was my way of trying to replicate the experience of getting into a Youtube rabbit hole when you discover this music, when you go from one artist to the next one, from one country to another, from one type of Synthwave to the next, without really knowing where you are anymore, but loving every piece of the madness you’re experiencing.
From your own perspective, what would you say would be the major differences between the Synthwave music that emerged in the ’70s and ’80s, and the tracks made today by the current generation of artists?
Iván Castell: I’m not a musician so I don’t know if I’m really entitled to answer this, but I feel that in the 70s and the 80s, the Synthesiser was used because it was a cheap way to sound big and experiment and create unheard sounds. The Synthwave artists in the mid-2000s were initially replicating the old sound but eventually turned this into something new. Synthwave doesn’t really sound like 80s music. As Gunship said, “It takes the feelings that were projected by the things we loved in the ’80s and converts that emotional response into music”.
Melbourne Documentary Film Festival 2020: Interview with Iván Castell, Director of THE RISE OF THE SYNTHS
source: Melbourne Documentary Film Festival
Synthwave started as a nostalgia side project for the most part and has evolved into a feeling. It’s really complicated to describe, to be honest. Also, now I think there’s a bunch of artists who are going into a more the late 70s freely experimentation synthesizer-type of music (Tangerine Dream, etc), while others are looking into the early 90s electronic music.
Why do you think the 80’s aesthetic – as seen in Drive and Stranger Things – has seen such a popular comeback, even extending to today’s fashions and overall pop culture?
Iván Castell: I think we’ve been educated by the film and tv shows that came from the US in the 80s, at least in Europe. It had a huge effect on us. I think it resonates with everyone because our collective memories are made from the film and the movies that we watched from that era, it’s pop culture now.
I think it has never gone away. But the fact that it was somehow denied as “demodé” in the 90s, made the comeback really huge. Now you can say without people making fun of you that you love the 80s – It’s really cool and nerdy – So I think it’s liberating for some people. Also, the fact that neon, grids, lasers, and all those old things were really gorgeous, just look at those 80s advertising on magazines, for example, you can’t beat those aesthetics!
I don’t know, people love them, it’s everywhere now. What I find terribly fascinating is that what people refer to “80s comeback” in music, advertising and fashion is actually the Synthwave aesthetic, the one that was created in the MySpace years, not the real 80s style, but people don’t really know about that.
Having John Carpenter as the film’s narrator is absolute perfection – why do you think his music, in particular, had such a profound effect on film scores/the Synthwave movement in general?
Iván Castell: As I said before, the movies are what those artists paid attention to. It’s their main inspiration. Not bands or popular artists, but they always talk about films and their synthesized soundtracks. I think they were unconsciously trying to recreate those feelings of being in the film, by creating their own music. Synthwave is music for films that don’t exist. It’s a mood, an atmosphere, and the synthesizer is the perfect tool for them to communicate those emotions.
Melbourne Documentary Film Festival 2020: Interview with Iván Castell, Director of THE RISE OF THE SYNTHS
source: Melbourne Documentary Film Festival
There’s quite an abundance of music and movie clips featured throughout the film, was it a nightmare to obtain the rights/clearances for them all?
Iván Castell: Yes! The movie and tv clips were very complicated to accommodate in the final cut, legally speaking. It delayed a lot of the process. We edited the film under the supervision of a specialized lawyer who told us if we were using the movie and TV clips under fair use or not. And me, as an editor, had to work around it to make everything work under the rules. As per the rest of the clips and images used, from other artists, we requested permission for everything.
Can you talk about the inception of the Synth Rider character and his role within the documentary?
Iván Castell: The Synth Rider wasn’t supposed to be in the film, It was born when we decided to make a crowdfunding campaign. When we pitched the idea of making a documentary about some guys on the internet making fake 80s music, people had disconnected before we finished the first phase, so I thought that using the 80s anti-hero and the film aspect of the scene in our advantage, could help grab the attention. He became the personification of the music and the aesthetic.
The Synth Rider was born as an homage of the Mad Max’s nightrider character and Ryan Gosling in Drive. But once created, I loved it so much that I had to put him in the film! So I decided that he will be the metaphor of the time travel backward that most people experience when they discover this subculture. He is the artists, fans, music, films, all together in one person – with a kickass They Live neck tattoo!
Film Inquiry thanks Iván Castell for taking the time to talk with us.
The Rise of the Synths will be playing at The Melbourne Documentary Film Festival 2020, which will be streaming online from June 30th til July 15th, information about ticket prices and the full program is available here:

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