And you’ll see the glitter of crashing cymbals
and you’ll hear the thunder of rolling drums
and the shimmer of trumpets.
And you’ll feel something akin to the electric thrill
I once enjoyed.
— “Seventy Six Trombones” from The Music Man
How does God speak? Through nature, according to the book of Job. Through Jesus and a holy spirit, says the New Testament. But ask Rachel, a teenaged fundamentalist Mormon who believes she has experienced an immaculate conception in Rebecca Thomas’ 2012 film Electrick Children, and she would tell you God spoke to her through a song.
On a rustic Utah compound, Rachel, dressed in plain Amish-type clothing, lives simply and dutifully within her Mormon sect’s rigid culture. On the day she undergoes “ecclesiastical interview” by her pious father that is documented on a tape recorder, the existence of which she only then learned. The device is intriguing and mysterious, but according to her pious father, “can be used for evil” and must be guarded only by those who can be trusted. But when Rachel can’t shake the allure of this (to her) new thing, she does what many teenagers do when confronted with the forbidden fruit: she breaks the rules. Picking out a cassette seemingly at random, she sneaks a listen of The Nerves’ 1976 song “Hanging On the Telephone” (covered by Flowers Forever) and is immediately transfixed. It’s like lightning through her body, an electric thrill that fills her with a spirit she hasn’t known before.
Weeks later, her thoughts (via narration) are told as if recorded onto a tape. “A few weeks ago, I experienced a miracle. An angelic voice came unto me and when I heard it, I was troubled… The only voice I heard was from a song on a tape. Could it be that he did this to me? This wonderful blessing of heavenly light. The voice that sang those words, wonder and spirit; Don’t leave me haaaaaaaaaangin’ on the teeeeelephone. Is he the one who felled me with this Jesus baby?” Juxtaposed with a telling of the story of Mary’s virgin birth, Rachel’s symptoms of pregnancy allude to a possibility too confounding to believe.
But it’s a possibility that her father does not believe, which leads Rachel to flee from an arranged shotgun wedding out into Las Vegas, the wilderness of civilization to her. “I travel beyond the walls of a home I cannot again call my home, in search of the father of my holy child — the man who sings on the cassette tape.” Static clogs her thoughts as she enters the unknown land. She’s on a quest and, though her zealous brother Will follows her in search of a confession of Rachel’s sins, she’s on her own.
The theme of encounter continues along Rachel’s journey. She meets a ragamuffin skater rebel, Clyde, who must have experienced the same electric thrill in Rachel as she did in the tape, for he becomes her shepherd even though he himself is a lost sheep. Later on she even finds the source of the voice on the tape, in an encounter that adds new light to her search for the father.
Spirit is alive in this story’s searchings. Rachel, Will, and Clyde all seek an encounter and a resolution to the dissonant tones clouding their minds. They are infused with an unnamable aura compelling them to act: Rachel, to find a (or is it The?) father; Will, to find atonement for (or escape from) sin; Clyde, to find reconciliation with his family and purpose for his connection with Rachel.
Electrick Children tells this nuanced fable with visual snap and a serene flow. Thomas, who also wrote the script, demonstrates care for the characters and respect for the wide-eyed searching that Rachel undergoes. This is a film not about where a journey ends but about how and where it begins. And the how and the where for Rachel’s odyssey happen to be the same electric thrill of encounter with a simple cassette tape. From there her quest, and that of the other wandering souls, is merely a response to the voice’s exhortation: Don’t leave me haaaaaaaaaangin’ on the teeeeelephone.