Lou Ottens, the Danish engineer who invented the audio tape, died last week. This simple-yet-ubiquitous technology went from being a staple of every home, to near obsolescence, to a revival as a hip and affordable format to music distribution, all within less than half a century. In Cassette: A Documentary Mixtape, director Zack Taylor unwinds the long spool of the underrated music format.
A lengthy interview with Lou Ottens comprises the backbone of the film. In these interviews, Ottens comes off as humble, reserved, and a little baffled at why his invention has lasted so long. “Normally I’m more interested in the future than in the past,” he notes as he leads Taylor on a tour of the cassette wing at Philips. While Ottens is credited as the sole inventor of the cassette tape, he leads an informal roundtable discussion of its creation among his similarly forward-thinking colleagues. (When shown a grip-and-grin photo with a large cassette, one engineer says “I cut that into pieces and threw it away.”)
For many viewers, a major point of interest is live footage and interviews with underground music luminaries like Thurston Moore, Mike Watt, Ian Mackaye, Damien Jurado, and Daniel Johnston. These artists shed some light on the role the cassette played in the development of punk culture and the role it plays in archives. While the interviews with Watt and Mackaye in particular portray the idiosyncratic role the cassette played in the creation and distribution of punk music, footage of New York City DJs and archivists offer more concrete insights into archives of the early hip hop scene and mix tape sales in the hip hop scene even today. Talking about tape trading in the early 1980s, DJ Ron G observes that “without cassettes, people wouldn’t have the memory of last night.”
Taylor doesn’t leave the pontificating to renowned musicians and DJs. Throughout the film, unnamed fans and consumers of the medium pontificate about the importance of creating and sharing analog media. One fan observes that “I can’t carry a trench coat filled with vinyl, but I can carry tapes in my pockets.” Another person dumps out an eclectic collection of cassettes on a park bench and enthuses about how a balmy summer afternoon inspired him to make a particular mix tape. Throughout the film, fans and big-name artists alike list the rules and extol the virtues of making a mix tape for a crush or a significant other.
The film is imbued with a warmly nostalgic look appropriate for its subject. Taylor and editor Georg Petzold intercut interviews with ads for cassette tapes made from lovingly damaged film prints. Segments on the NYC hip hop scene are punctuated by found footage of breakdancing crews, and scenes transition into one another with homemade audio recordings. The filmmakers’ use of homemade recordings with voices cocooned in tape hiss allows viewers to hear the imperfect audio charms of the cassette tape firsthand.
“When your time has gone, it’s time to disappear,” Lou Ottens observes at the start of the film. Though Ottens has passed away, his invention lives on among music fans and eager listeners around the world. Cassette: A Documentary Mixtape is a charming document of his legacy.