Alison Tavel

Director Alison Tavel.

Alison Tavel has directed a film about her father’s invention, the Resynator, one of the first synthesizers and a step forward into electronic music. Her father, Don Tavel, died in a car crash in 1988 when Alison was 10 weeks old. Don, a trailblazer in the field of electronic music, was, by all accounts, a genius in pioneering electronic music efforts.

Don Tavel began working on the Resynator at the age of 25, after graduating from the University of Indiana. Don played 17 different instruments, started the University of Indiana’s department of electronic music engineering in what a professor called “a seminal moment for music technology.” Don’s goal was to push the musical envelope and create a way for a musician to “play” or sing into the machine and have it electronically altered in a way that also retained some semblance of the musician’s input, unlike other synthesizers that simply mimicked the sound of a particular instrument.

Alison, who works for singer/songwriter Grace Potter, is involved in music herself, and, in the course of this journey back in time to attempt to discover who her father really was, she speaks with musicians like Kenny Aronoff (drummer for John Cougar Mellencamp), Peter Gabriel, Ornie McIntyre of the Average White Band, Butch Vig (Nirvana, Garbage), Money Mark of the Beastie Boys, Fred Armison, and Rami Joffee of the Foo Fighters. All her life, Allison had heard stories about her father’s encounters with famous artists like Stevie Wonder, B.B. King, and Paul McCartney. She had never known whether these stories were true or merely family legends.

The film starts out as a mystery about the electronic instrument Don Tavel invented. It was abandoned for 25 years and ended up stashed away in a box in Don’s mother’s attic in Indianapolis, Indiana. The discovery of this “lost Indiana Jones-like item” begins as a straightforward investigation. Utilizing old family film of her father and using  voice-over, Alison shares the many positive stories about her award-winning father that she has been told over the years.

Then, things take a very different turn and the information shared with her by Don’s former friends, family and colleagues lead to a very different place—a place that is real, raw, and honest.

There are so many things about Don’s family that emerge and puzzle us. For instance, Don had an identical twin brother, R.J., but Allison has never met him. In fact, when Ron tells Alison, “When Don died, our Mom wrote me out of her life.” Who does that? Why does someone do that?

Investigating the Resynator electronic instrument.

Allison Tavel, Grace Potter, and Michael Tavel.

For the first time, Alison learns less-than-positive things about her genius father. His mercurial temperament had never been discussed before. Letters that Don left say things like, “I must not allow myself to ruin the last half of my life. I felt unloved my entire life…Instead of love, I got awards. I have never been able to make you love me.” These gut-wrenching peeks into the psyche of Don Tavel reduce Alison’s mother, Tamara, to tears at one point, and Allison herself ends up transporting the Resynator all the way to Minca, Columbia, and, later, to such venues as the Midwest Acoustics Conference and the NAMM show, where it was demonstrated in 1980, 44 years earlier.

We learn that only 2 completely workable Resynators reached the public, although there were 6 prototypes and 200 ordered, but not produced (3 by Peter Gabriel). Colleagues share stories of how Don seemed to lose enthusiasm for the project after a 1982 trip to London to demonstrate the instrument for Paul McCartney did not yield fruit. The friction between Tammy and Don is fully revealed to Alison for the first time; there are more questions than answers.

At various points, clever animation is used to fill in the story blanks. Danny Madden did a fine job with the animation, and the music, supervised by Chris Ruggiero, is excellent. Especially touching is audio of Alison’s father singing Leon Russell’s “A Song for You” at film’s end.

Resynator instrument/machine.

Resynator” at SXSW 2024 on March 10, 2024.

This was a true revelation, as the synopsis doesn’t really reveal the revelations to come. Don Tavel crashed his car on November 28, 1988 and was declared brain dead at age 36 on December 3, 1988. Alison had just reached 2 and ½ months of age on September 14, 1988. By all accounts her life growing up with her mom and stepfather  Alen Rosenberg, who entered her life in 1997, was idyllic.

The film is both enlightening, informative, and interesting on a psychological level.  While it is true that tekkies might be less thrilled with the personal stuff, cut the one hour and 36 minute film some slack. It is a major achievement for this musician/filmmaker and it makes us hope that the Resynator will rise, Phoenix-like, from the ashes 35 years later and potentially achieve the acclaim that was denied Don Tavel during life.