IFFBoston 2017 Review: Pressing Play On CASSETTE: A DOCUMENTARY MIXTAPE

Zack Taylor’s documentary looks at tape culture and a format that refuses to die.

The humble cassette tape, mechanism for music reproduction and expression and progenitor of the truly portable, insular practice of digging tunes while isolated from the rest of the world. It was the backbone of the 1980s for major release and bootleg alike, and when tied to the microcircuitry out of Japan, with battery powered Walkmen or bigger-battery powered boomboxes the tape was king.

Zack Taylor’s Cassette: A Documentary Mixtape does a decent job at reclaiming this medium’s rightful place in our collective memory, showing its tenacity to cling on despite recent radical shifts in how music is consumed. It’s one thing to laud the analogue world of vinyl, and many films have done well to showcase that subset of collectors (check out Alan Zweig’s film from the year 2000 for one). But cassettes are even stranger beasts – few would argue convincingly they sound better, their mechanism of portability is offset by the lack of random access that records, CDs or of course digital has, and their very existence is one of compromise, trading the quality of a reel-to-reel for the simplification of an idiot proof format that was simply good enough.

The celebration of the mundane, pedestrian caliber of the invention is lauded by those enthralled with its “punk” aesthetic, where being worse is in fact better. With interviews with the like of tin-eared Henry Rollins showing off his wall ‘o tapes, the fetish of format is cleverly situated with this subset. New bands come on to talk about how CDs are awful, crystalline things while tapes are somehow more rock-and-roll. 

The core interview, and the most interesting, is with the inventor of the tape itself, Philips electronics engineer Lou Ottens. His refreshing lack of nostalgia, and bemusement about the love of his invention, is quite profound. The fact that he also helped birth the CD as well is presented as a quirky afterthought, but the role in both these formats in how generations have experienced music releases is very interesting. The look at the industrial designs is fascinating, and while seeing some false starts would have been particularly helpful, his visit to his former factory that has some deliciously phallic exemplars of tape players is a thrill.

The film is at its best when it delves into specific subcultures such as hip-hop, where the trading of cassettes allowed a kind of underground distribution chain from party to party – the DJs would spin vinyl, but the traders and entrepreneurs would surreptitiously capture the performances to spread throughout the community, dubbing copies from copies in a chain with increasing hiss that still allowed the vibe to cut through.

At the same time, there’s talk of the practice that gives the film part of its title, the practice of crafting in real time that perfect mix of other people’s music, either to woo or wow. In a world before casual playlists, this was serious stuff, and the hours spent making sure the flow was right, the decoration of the label, and the seriousness with which the practice was often undertaken again exemplifies the nascent collective ability to all be our own DJ with a physical method to showcase our craft.

There’s a lot going on tied to these tapes, and as Taylor’s film ping-pongs back and forth, the mix doesn’t always work as well as it might. Yes, there’s interest in how the “good tapes from Korea” smell a specific way at the manufacturers, but some of the interviews from there go off on uninteresting tangents. Throughout there’s plenty to admire, but save for the taciturn Ottens there isn’t anyone to stand up and truly situate this love of a redundant technology as preposterous, near-Luddite fetishization. There are profound aspects of this story that are glossed over, from the rise of illegal distribution of music to how the previous cassette, the 8-track, faltered in trying to achieve the same aspect of portability and convenience. Similarly, while we often see these objects of interest we rarely hear them.

Still, there’s plenty to recommend about the work, especially its use of old answering machine messages as a kind of sound collage overlayed as soundtrack. It’s this aspect of the technology – the DIY, self recording, self-distributing – that’s the most fascinating, and the film does well to showcase that important aspect fairly well.

In the end, by trying to tackle so many aspects the mix of Cassette doesn’t flow quite as well as it might have. Its bouncing from element to element actually feels more redundant than it should, and maybe 60 minutes would have been better than a full 90-minute running time. Still, there’s real passion in Taylor’s take, and as a rumination upon how the technology of music reproduction fundamentally affects our appreciation of these tracks is a rich enough topic to be explored that one may celebrate almost any film that takes this seriously. Still, there’s plenty more to explore, and while tracking down Ottens while he still has stories to tell should not be overlooked, in the end there’s likely a far more robust, deep work to be made about how this quirky format fits into the last century of how we collectively consume and distribute music.

Cassette: A Documentary Mixtape - Official Trailer from Zack Taylor on Vimeo.