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What parents need to know
Parents need to know that John Was Trying to Contact Aliens is a 2020 short documentary about a man who spent three decades trying to reach aliens by broadcasting music into space. While the central story is about a homosexual man living in rural Michigan who built and designed elaborate and large electronic devices so that he could broadcast music like Kraftwerk and Afropop into outer space in the hopes of making contact with extraterrestrials, the documentary is ultimately about the desire for connection. John, the subject of the documentary, discusses how difficult it was to be a gay man where he lived in the 1960s and '70s, and the loneliness he felt before finally finding his life partner and true love. In a quick scroll through some of John's albums, there's a quick shot of a man smoking a joint on a reggae album cover. Aside from this, the deeper themes the documentary explores are likely to go way over the heads of younger viewers, making this best for teens and adults.
What's the story?
JOHN WAS TRYING TO CONTACT ALIENS tells the story of John Shepherd, a man living in rural Michigan who spent three decades broadcasting music in the hopes of reaching extraterrestrial life. Against a backdrop of the 1960s and '70s Space Race, NASA, and science fiction, Shepherd began building increasingly elaborate and bulky supercomputers through which he would broadcast radio programs of his favorite music, like electronic music, Krautrock, reggae, and Afropop, millions of miles into outer space. This made him something of a local media sensation, but, as John reveals, this passion for connecting with aliens was, in part, rooted in a difficult home life and being a gay man during a time when being a gay man was unacceptable. As the lonely years continued, and Shepherd's music went, presumably, unheard by extraterrestrials, he experiences true love at first sight, confirming his assertion made before meeting the love of his life that, "for everyone, there is someone."
Is it any good?
Sometimes, feature-length documentaries come out in which the story is more or less an anecdote that could've been told in 20 minutes or less. With John Was Trying to Contact Aliens, the opposite is the case. Clocking in at 16 minutes, it's a short, too-short documentary that feels like a story has been summarized and glossed over. What appears to be a story of an oddball eccentric's obsession with using 1970s overlarge supercomputers to broadcast Kraftwerk to any extraterrestrial beings interested in hearing "Autobahn" on their flying saucer FM radios becomes a poignant and much-needed message on love and humanity's innate need for connection.
While the story and message do emerge in the 16 minutes, the jump from John Shepherd's decades of alien-obsessed loneliness to finding true love feels abrupt and rushed. We get the facts, some archival footage, and present-day interviews, but the audience is left feeling like they read the Cliff's Notes version -- told rather than shown. It's over and done with too quickly, at the expense of a greater emotional depth that's clearly there, but unexplored. It's not a bad documentary by any stretch, but its short length leaves a lingering sense of a missed opportunity, that there's more to this than what's presented.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about documentaries. How does John Was Trying to Contact Aliens compare to other documentaries you've seen?
How does the documentary use contemporary and archival footage to tell the story?
What are the deeper themes explored in the documentary? Do you think the documentary does a good job of connecting John's interest in contacting aliens with his personal life? Why or why not?
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