At the beginning of A Life in Waves, we are told that even if you don’t know who Suzanne Ciani is, you still have heard her music. A bold statement, but they are probably correct. Who made the sound effects for pinball? What about the compositions for Atari games? The iconic “popping” sound of the Coca-Cola bottle. These achievements can be attributed to the aforementioned electronic musical pioneer.
At the start, we follow Ciani as she is getting a prestigious artist award and during that time we are given information about her background. In college, she majored in music and became fascinated with the revolutionary soundboard. She continued this passion by continuing to make music with it and she then transitioned into making soundtracks and sound effects for businesses. Throughout her tenure, she faced adversity from creative and chauvinistic forces. Being a woman during her time was difficult, especially since she was advocating the use of a device that almost no one understood. While a large part of the documentary focuses on her career and music, we are also offered brief glimpses into her personal life as well.
The best documentaries are the ones that have multiple layers and meaningful themes. A Life in Waves never quite elevates to that level. It’s a good documentary because it’s an interesting topic and there are themes of feminism and exploration of the struggles of innovation. It falters in that there is not enough examination of Ciana herself. It teaches us things about her but we never get to really know her. At one point she mentions that her thoughts regarding romance have changed and it even changed the meaning of her music. This segment could have been interesting and it could have really delved into her mind but instead just moved on.
A Life in Waves is a wonderful love letter to one of the greatest innovators of electronic music. We are told of her struggle and of her great achievements while also getting a peek into her philosophy. Despite the lack of deeper exploration into Ciana’s mind, there is still much to learn from this passionately made film.