For a long time local filmmaker Lawrence Johnston (Life) has been fascinated with neon, and he even managed to include images of neon lights into his documentaries Eternity and the whimsical Night. But now he has made a carefully researched feature length documentary exploring the heritage, design and history of neon and neon lighting. While a documentary about the history of neon lighting may sound a rather dry subject, this actually is quite fascinating and revealing. Johnston uses a deftly edited mix of archival footage and interviews to trace the history of neon lighting, which was supposedly first demonstrated at the World’s Fair in 1894, where it turned night into day and gave off a festive air.
Famous inventor Nikola Tesla virtually invented the neon light, but he never capitalised on its potential, unlike the litigious and entrepreneurial Georges Claude, who perfected the electrode and saw the possibilities of it as an advertising medium. He would readily sue people for patent infringements. Since then cities like New York with its garish Times Square and lights of Broadway, Las Vegas with its strip, and Los Angeles have all used neon lighting in advertising to attract the tourist dollar and enhance the exciting atmosphere.
According to one of the experts interviewed throughout the documentary, neon signs reflect our hopes and dreams and aspirations. Hong Kong and even pre-revolutionary Cuba used the neon signage. Tokyo has also employed neon light advertising, but its sensory overload even puts Las Vegas to shame. We even get a glimpse of Melbourne’s iconic Skipping Girl vinegar sign to give it a local flavour.
Johnston eschews traditional voice over narration, instead he relies on the interviewees and a wealth of beautifully evocative black and white archival footage to tell the colourful history of the neon light. His interview subjects include architects, historians, authors and artists. Johnston has also used a few carefully chosen clips from Hollywood musicals like 1934’s Dames and Busby Berkeley’s The Gold Diggers Of 1937 to showcase the sometimes inventive and clever use of neon to create memorable cinematic images.
The music accompanying the documentary is evocative of the jazz era, and Eron Sheehan’s cinematography is also very good. But while it may be informative Neon lacks the same broad appeal and commercial appeal of Johnson’s previous documentary Fallout, which looked at the making of On The Beach.
Director: Lawrence Johnson
Release Date: 2 June 2016
David Edwards is the editor of The Blurb and a contributor on film and television