Shepherd spent nearly 30 years trying to contact aliens by broadcasting music millions of miles into space, favouring “non-commercial music” such as jazz, reggae, Afropop, Kraftwerk, Fela Kuti, Steve Reich and Tangerine Dream.
Using new footage and archival imagery alongside commentary from John, the Matthew Killip directed film explores John’s journey from his upbringing with adoptive grandparents to inventing and building gigantic machinery called S.T.R.A.T. (Special Telemetry Research and Tracking) to transmit signals into deep space.
Speaking to Pitchfork about his musical selections, John Shepherd said: “I like rock, but there’s plenty of it out there. It’s a pretty common broadcast. Rather than loud guitars just wailing away, I wanted to go towards where the soul was and have more meaning in that sense. I wanted something that explores human emotion in a warm and effective way. In sending out music, the idea was to communicate that sense of humanness, that feeling and drive, that ecstasy.”
Talking about what interested him about the gamelan music he played, John said: “The interesting rhythmic patterns and the instruments themselves. There’s something unique about it. It’s a beautiful sound, but most people never hear this sort of thing. Most things you hear, there’s lots of guitars and drums or whatever. This offered a whole new avenue of listening and broadcasting, so I thought, why not? I shared it with my invisible audience.”
The film also explores challenges John faced such as the lack of a loving relationship with his single mother, loneliness, feelings of alienation in a conservative living situation exacerbated by his homosexuality, and eventually finding a connection on earth that changed his life.