Netflix Captures One Man’s Weird, Wonderful Mission to Contact Aliens by Playing Kraftwerk
The new Netflix documentary short “John Was Trying to Contact Aliens” profiles John Shepherd, a Michigan man who tried to contact extraterrestrials by playing avant-garde music.
The aliens aren’t coming—they may already be here! Or, at least, that’s what recent news suggests the U.S. government suspects.
Just this past week, the Pentagon announced it was creating a new task force to look into the existence of UFOs that may have been witnessed flying around and over U.S. military bases. That development was spurred by a New York Times report that, despite previous statements to the contrary, the Pentagon has been carrying out a covert program—dubbed the Unidentified Aerial Phenomenon Task Force, which was tucked inside the Office of Naval Intelligence—to investigate American pilots’ encounters with mysterious aerial vehicles (seen in videos such as these). Even former Senate majority leader Harry Reid came out in support of that endeavor, since it had the potential to unearth evidence of extraterrestrial life or, just as importantly, foreign nations’ efforts to spy on the nation with groundbreaking aviation technology.
No doubt all of these bombshells on the E.T. front were of great interest to John Shepherd, a rural Michigan man who’s the subject of Netflix’s latest fascinating short, John Was Trying to Contact Aliens. Premiering on August 20, director Matthew Killip’s 16-minute film is a testament to the spirit of exploration and innovation. Moreover, it’s a sweet and subtly profound portrait of the universal desire for something more—which, for John, meant finding creatures residing somewhere in the vast cosmos. Until, that is, he found what he really wanted here on Earth.
John Was Trying to Contact Aliens introduces us to John in a room where, wedged between a couch and a giant bookshelf of LPs (and a record player), two tall shelf towers stand, filled with archaic electronic devices that resemble the sort of gear featured in old NASA movies, or the stereos one’s grandparents might have owned. As John turns their dials and brings them to life, they make oooh-eee-oooh noises straight out of a 1950s science-fiction film. John himself is an older gentleman with a big bushy grey beard and long hair parted in the middle and tied in a ponytail, and when director Killip cuts from images of radio waves bouncing around a screen to his intense eyes, one gets an immediate sense of the obsessive passion driving his unique enterprise.
“My interest is in finding out the unknown. And the unknown is just that—unknown. And you search, and you continue searching, because of your desire. Because you know that something’s there,” he states in a post-credit clip from one of many old TV segments featured in John Was Trying to Contact Aliens, looking like a long-haired ‘70s kid who might have been right at home at an Allman Brothers Band show (or on stage with them, for that matter). Through a concise blend of new footage, archival photographs, and commentary from John, Killip’s short elucidates that, from an early age, John became consumed with trying to communicate with otherworldly beings. To do this, he invented and constructed a wide array of complex contraptions that beamed “non-commercial music”—jazz, reggae, Afropop, Kraftwerk, Tangerine Dream—and which soon took over his grandparents’ residence, where he lived. So big (and profuse) did these behemoths become that he eventually had to build an addition to the house in order to continue expanding his operation, which included a two story-high deep space transmitter, and was given the official name S.T.R.A.T. (Special Telemetry Research and Tracking).
In a remote Michigan house surrounded by woods, John—operating like a mad-scientist DJ for the stars—could freely lose himself in his work. As he speaks about his difficult upbringing with the single mother he rarely saw (“She was always a little different than I was. Almost, not alien; that’s not the right word, really. Just, different”), Killip beautifully juxtaposes images of the glittering, awe-inspiring galaxy above with faded black-and-white photos of young John—a contrast that speaks to the underlying source of the man’s yearning. That John confesses that his life was a lonely one only further underscores the real reasons he wanted to reach out to aliens. And additional clarity comes when he admits that his alienation was exacerbated by his homosexuality, which contributed to feelings of outsiderdom in this conservative milieu.
“Sometimes, taking the course that I have in my life, and the path, it was like a, maybe a lonely mountain road to some higher elevation peaks to see the view. To check out something most people don’t see. So you tend to go it alone more. You don’t have much company in this,” John confesses with more than a bit of sorrow in his voice. Yet isolation was not, it turns out, his ultimate fate. Near its conclusion, John Was Trying to Contact Aliens reveals that John eventually did discover a soulmate in John Litrenta, a partner whom he met at a club in 1993, and whose resemblance to John (same bushy greying beard and long hair; same slight paunch; same jeans and work boots and weathered face) is almost comically perfect. Their romance is clearly the reality-altering connection John always sought, and its existence does much to mitigate the sadness of watching John rummage through the remnants of his now-discarded S.T.R.A.T. project.
“I never gave up trying to make contact. And the excitement, for me, was always there. The anticipation that something might happen,” John says early on. That he found it—or, as he jokingly puts it toward film’s conclusion, “contact has been made”—illustrates that the pursuit of companionship takes many forms. And, also, that if you keep searching long and hard and madly enough, you just might find what you’re looking for.