Sights, sounds and stories converge in Dolby's live show.
A man wanders into a mental institution. A psychiatrist assesses him as a sexy secretary gives him a come-hither stare. Outside, a patient crawls on the ground, making grotesque faces as he swings a croquet mallet. Another jogs in place while peering through a telescope. They're scientists who've gone mad, and the man must decide if he's crazy enough to join them.
If you're a fan of early-'80s music videos, you'll know these scenes are from Thomas Dolby's 1982 hit "She Blinded Me With Science." It entranced American listeners with futuristic synthesizers and poppy dance beats, but it never caught on in Dolby's homeland, England. And though it doesn't sound like most of Dolby's catalog, it captures his fascination with experimentation.
Dolby's experiments have become more complex and contemplative since "Blinded." Though he helped direct that video, he'd never filmed a movie until this year, after discovering a lighthouse near his childhood home was closing. I chatted with him before his Nov. 6 stop at the Majestic Theatre, where he'll present this award-winning documentary, The Invisible Lighthouse, with live narration, music and sound effects.
Your live show centers on a lighthouse from your childhood. Why did you decide to film it as an adult?
That lighthouse flashed on my bedroom wall every night. This year it stopped flashing for the first time since 1792. That seemed meaningful.
You've mentioned that the film has summoned "a collective sense of grief." What did you mean by that?
The company in charge was keeping [the closing] quiet. They don't want goofs like me upset about it, I suppose. Anyhow, I debuted the film in a nearby town, and people didn't know the lighthouse was closing and were quite upset.... It had a very personal meaning for many people.... Lighthouses are a monument to mankind's ingenuity during a certain period. Once things like that are gone, we tend to regret it.
Tell me how the live show works.
I project the film and play a musical score and do narration.... Blake Leyh, who worked on Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, he does live sound effects, like seabirds singing and ocean surf. We've also got local celebrities at each show. It might be musicians or writers or preservation experts. We interview each other in a Q&A, and then I play older hits like "She Blinded Me With Science."
I'm fascinated with the early days of MTV, especially how artists started exploring their music's visual possibilities. What do you remember most about creating videos then?
People would rush home to watch MTV instead of going out to clubs. A hit video would influence clubs and radio programmers. I begged my label to let me do a video, and they were like, "Show us the song, and we'll give you the budget." So I rapidly wrote "She Blinded Me With Science."
That song is very unlike the moody, atmospheric and personal music that's most of what I do.... But I'm always thinking about alternate universes, like if the microchip had never been invented and everything ran by clockwork.