London Film Festival 2020: Delia Derbyshire: The Myths and the Legendary Tapes Review

Whenever I am able to watch a good handful of films from a film festival, I always try and have a documentary be one of those films. I’ve not always succeeded, but in this instance I have. Looking at the documentaries on offer, this one, focusing on Delia Derbyshire, probably best known for producing the theme for Doctor Who, stood out to me. However, the film itself is a bit more experimental, and while I admire what was being aimed for, I don’t think it 100% worked.

The film looks at the life and career of Delia Derbyshire, based on journals and tapes of hers discovered after she died. Through the film we see the work she did at the BBC Radiophonic Workshop and her experiments with sound and making music from abstract sounds, with the works Derbyshire produced being heavily influential to modern electronic music. In terms fo the structure, the film is a mix of acted recreations of Derbyshire’s life, with director Caroline Catz playing Derbyshire (alongside actors like Julian Rhind-Tutt and Richard Glover), interviews with those who worked with Derbyshire and the work of Cosey Fanni Tutti in using samples of Derbyshire’s tapes to score the film. Now this is a bit of a mixed bag. On the one hand, we get a good sense of the history and legacy of Derbyshire and the recreations are well acted, with the more experimental format of the film working for the experimental nature of Derbyshire’s work, I just don’t think it 100% works. I like films that play around with the biopic formula and I heavily praised American Animals for doing a similar mix of recreation and interviews that this film does, but there doesn’t seem to be any real purpose behind the interviews. There is a bit at the end where this format works wonders in allowing for a recreation of Derbyshire to explore her career, but the constant mixing of the recreations and Derbyshire’s own words (through interviews she did) feels a bit muddled.

I think the visuals and music do a better job at expressing the idea of Derbyshire than the overall structure of the film. The production design works well in creating the cramped conditions of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop and allows the audience to see every bit of inspiration and experimentation that Derbyshire did with her work, and for me personally (although I’m not sure whether it was intended), the design of the film gave me vibes of Peter Strickland, specifically Berberian Sound Studio. The music by Cosey Fanni Tutti, mixed with Derbyshire’s music, works well in showing the legacy of Derbyshire, the pioneering work she did and how influential it is to modern electronic musicians. The soundscape of the film does a better job at creating the mindset of Derbyshire than the overall film.

On the whole, Delia Derbyshire: The Myths and the Legendary Tapes was a valiant experiment, but one I don’t think completely worked. It’s not a bad film, and I did feel a connection with Derbyshire’s life and story, but on the whole the film felt a bit muddled and probably would have worked better as either an archival documentary along the lines of Amy or a straight up biopic of Derbyshire.

My Rating: 3/5

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