Almost as experimental as the woman in question herself, Caroline Catz’s Delia Derbyshire: The Myths and the Legendary Tapes is indefinable. Comprising of biopic style reconstructions of Delia’s life, talking heads featuring friends and collaborators, and archival footage, Catz’s love letter to the late “Godmother of electronic dance music” is imaginative and bold.
Delia was best known for being the mind behind Doctor Who‘s famous theme but, as Catz sets out to prove, she was so much more than that accomplishment. Funnily enough, holding on to The Myths and the Legendary Tapes‘ hand as it whisks us through history and art on the fringes is a bit like stepping into the TARDIS and allowing it to take you somewhere unknown. The beginning third of this feature drops us off in different times and realities: composer Cosey Fanni Tutti tries to channel Delia by searching for meaning in her music in the present; in the past, archival footage of Delia introduces us to her real image and voice; and lastly, a reconstructed timeline of Delia’s career utilizes actors to bring her back to life. This kaleidoscopic approach, though initially difficult to gel with, quickly reveals itself to be working in the film’s favor.
After a general history on Delia and the gist of her music — radiophonic and electronic music before the concept of EDM was a thing — Catz allows the more traditional reconstructions to take the reigns. Although, traditional is used loosely here: there’s nothing conventional about this project or its subject. Documentarian footage of Cosey Fanni Tutti creates sonic pathways to the past, where the acted Delia (Catz) interacts with every facet of the film around her. At times, it’s as if she’s speaking to Tutti, her explanations prompted by sonic and visual cues. The three styles of filmmaking present are separate but also have no distinct edge, meshing together as one. Surreal visual sequences go further in blurring the lines of reality as they are spliced between this trifecta.
The Myths and the Legendary Tapes is undoubtedly more concerned with connecting to Delia spiritually than it is with retelling her life story. The reconstruction follows no strict path or period, and there’s almost always a cerebral element — however small — to the cinematics that make it a bit of a haze like we’ve been transported there ourselves in place of a cinema camera. The result is striking as Caz avoids reconstruction cliches and their typically low quality in documentaries. The filmmaking is solid and enamoring, and the writing charming and good-humored. It allows an intimacy with Delia and her work not achievable through just archive footage without being trapped within the confines of a straight-up biopic.
The longer The Myths and the Legendary Tapes runs, the less we see of Tutti and the documentary talking heads. They become a reenforcement for the cinematic storytelling — playful commentary, the use of Delia’s recorded voice to provide extra context, and complimentary abstract visuals. The stuff with Tucci, as curious as it’ll make audiences, is better in short bursts; Catz’s decision to somewhat abandon the initial large amounts of it is a good one.
If one thing’s clear, it’s that Caz shares Tutti’s borderline obsession with Delia and her body of work. However, Caz doesn’t avoid the not-so-glamorous things about Delia’s life nor the fact she was inherently an outsider due to her strange and analytical mind and interests. We get to see Delia working with friends at the highs of her career, but we also follow her towards the quieter end of her career after she moves up north when things go sour at her previous studio.
Delia was a “successful alcoholic,” someone who got into hard drugs by complete accident and was quite the enigma despite her proficiency at discussing the things she loved. Catz brings these parts of her to life so well in her performance, and like many a troubled artist, Delia’s genius came at a social and emotional cost. It’s not all gloom and doom though as a perky voiceover at the end will tell you. Catz is committed to not letting Delia be written off as a tragedy because the director/actor seems to believe Delia wouldn’t see things that way, but she doesn’t have to skimp on the details of the composer’s life to fulfill that commitment.
Unfortunately, when The Myths and the Legendary Tapes slows down to recall Delia’s slower-paced second half of her life, the proceedings get lost in themselves. The tonal change doesn’t work, and where other biopics find profundity in their final acts, Catz lets things run on a bit too long without much insight into the nitty-gritty of Delia’s feelings during this time or her work. The final 30 minutes are somewhat of a slog, but the upbeat and reflexive ending is worth sticking around for.
This is a film in love with its subject. Though teetering on the edge of self-indulgence, Catz holds the abstract storytelling together impressively and has a deep well of knowledge and care to draw from, making The Myths and the Legendary Tapes a must-see for anyone interested in psychoacoustics — or simply fascinating women.