.Relive the Voice Behind ‘Thriller’ in ‘Sonic Fantasy’ at Cinequest

Documentary at Cinequest listens in on stories of a recording genius

Vincent Price had never used headphones before he recorded his spoken-word segment for the Thriller LP in 1982.

Thanks to Cinequest, you can relive the story in Sonic Fantasy, a documentary about recording engineer Bruce Swedien, whose magical conjuring helped save the Thriller project when it was on the brink of failure. The U.S. premiere unfolds Aug. 24 at the California Theatre at 7:15pm, followed by a discussion with the filmmakers. Sonic Fantasy then repeats Aug. 28 and 29 at the Pruneyard Cinemas.

Swedien was one of many geniuses who pooled their resources to make the Thriller album a success, but since sound engineers rarely make headlines, his story is long overdue, especially since Swedien passed away in 2020. Anyone with 500 microphones in his collection deserves his own documentary.

Unfortunately, we don’t hear one second of the music—the whole film is composed of interviews, plus a few dorky animated bits just to fill space—which is fine because everyone knows the album and I wanted to hear the stories anyway. And stories there were. In the film, we hear emotional, intimate and magical stuff from Swedien himself, plus his assistants and many of the musicians and producers who participated in the sessions, including Steve Porcaro of Toto, who wrote the tune “Human Nature,” and his bandmate Steve Lukather, both of whom were there for the whole Thriller project.

Listening to these guys describe working with Michael Jackson adds a whole new dimension to the plethora of media travesties we all remember. The only voice missing is Quincy Jones, unfortunately. I’m not sure there are a whole lot of new revelations, but, again, the stories kept my attention. As a washed-up sound engineer myself, I was, um, thrilled to see Swedien get his due. He really was the wizard that pulled the now-famous nine-day marathon remix of the album on deadline, after the whole project had failed to become what everyone wanted. Everyone in the film testifies over and over to the genius of Swedien. It was a joy to watch.

But what if Vincent Price and Toto are not your cups of tea? I don’t see why they wouldn’t be, but in case they’re not, you still have time. There’s much to choose from. Plenty of films will screen every day, all day, through the 31st.

As Cinequest launched last week, the festival was significantly stripped down and subdued this year: no happy-hour soirees for attendees to mob the pasta buffet, no thumping DJ afterparties, no Caffe Frascati supplying rickety urns of hangover coffee for the VIP Lounge. But in spite of it all, everyone felt the festival vibes and seemed relieved to return again.

Linoleum, the opening-night film, for example, featured Jim Gaffigan as a wannabe astronaut who hosts a failing children’s science TV show during the space-race era, replete with dial telephones and beater wood-panel station wagons in a suburban Ohio hamlet. Then a rocket crashes in his backyard, triggering him to rebuild it and launch himself into space, possibly to make his late father proud. Without spoiling it, Gaffigan’s midlife crisis then presents itself as a hall of narrative mirrors, with time, memory and nostalgia all taking center stage as he looks back on his life, his future, and a strained relationship with his current family. We go along for the ride as he slowly pieces it all together. You will need to watch the film more than once before you catch everything. And that’s a compliment.

Following the film, Gaffigan then received the Maverick Spirit Award, putting him in the same league as Harrison Ford, Neil Gaiman, Rosario Dawson, Andie MacDowell, Werner Herzog and countless others. The resulting banter on stage evolved into a glorious, poignant and hysterical matrix of back-and-forth between Gaffigan, director Colin West and “the two Chads” who produced the project. In any case, it was a classic Cinequest award-night conversation. One for the books.

Of course, if downtown San Jose ain’t your bag, that’s fine. Pruneyard is also participating. Flip through the schedule and see what you find. Cinequest is the type of festival that always provides unexpected encounters of the human and cinematic sort.

Gary Singh
Gary Singhhttps://www.garysingh.info/
Gary Singh’s byline has appeared over 1500 times, including newspaper columns, travel essays, art and music criticism, profiles, business journalism, lifestyle articles, poetry and short fiction. He is the author of The San Jose Earthquakes: A Seismic Soccer Legacy (2015, The History Press) and was recently a Steinbeck Fellow in Creative Writing at San Jose State University. An anthology of his Metro columns, Silicon Alleys, was published in 2020.

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