The Aki Kaurismäki Leningrad Cowboys Collection Review
Kaurismäki’s Leningrad Cowboys are a musical group formed by a bunch of Russian hicks somewhere out in the remoteness of Siberia who, judging from their striking resemblance and über-quiffs, may all be related. Unable to find an audience for their peculiar brand of accordian and brass-based punk-folk at home, they set out for America to widen their musical horizons and discover this thing called rock ‘n’ roll. Considering they have all the characteristics and eccentricities that you associate with the best Kaurismäki films – laconic losers with rock ‘n’ roll dreams - only even more so, you would expect the director’s three Leningrad Cowboys films to be up there with the peak of his comedy work, but sadly it’s not the case.
Kaurismäki is certainly a director who can work with very little in terms of ideas, plot and expression, but seems nevertheless to be capable of finding inexhaustible depths of humour, tragedy and compassion in his simple stories of little people with grand dreams. The fact then that the Leningrad Cowboys saga is essentially a one-note joke spread across three movies and a number of short films shouldn’t therefore be reason alone for the films failure to raise scarcely more than a wry smile in the viewer. It certainly doesn’t help that the whole look and feel - the shades, the suits and rock ‘n’roll - was already done more than a decade previously in The Blues Brothers, but Kaurismäki gives his musicians a characteristically dour North-East European twist, which only makes their ambitions to play the blues rather more incongruous with their character and appearance.
The problem with the Leningrad Cowboys films is that this is essentially situational humour, which is one joke that really doesn’t stretch too far. Once you’ve laughed at these dour hick balalaika players, hopelessly out of place in a street, in a shop, in a restaurant, on a stage, with their shades, their ridiculous quiffs and long winkle-pickers, and seen them getting down and playing some mean and dirty rock ‘n’ roll, you’ve pretty much got all there is to get from the films. Along with the anarchic absurdity of their plot outlines – which are funnier on paper than on the screen – the films certainly have all the right elements for classic cult status, but they lack the human element that is in other Kaurismäki films that, regardless of the absurdity and paucity of their limited situation, gives the comedy and tragedy of their characters’ existence that little bit more depth, warmth and compassion.
Leningrad Cowboys Go America (1989)
In the first Leningrad Cowboys film, Aki Kaurismäki manages to bring together three things that usually add-up to sure-fire cult status in the movie world – America, the road movie and rock ‘n’ roll – and wraps them up in an appropriately dry sense of absurdity. He even manages to get Jim Jarmusch in there.
The film opens in the cold wastes of Northern Russia, where the manager of the Leningrad Cowboys Vladimir (Matti Pellonpää), is trying to secure a recording contract for the Russian folk band. Their music doesn’t go down well with the local promoter who thinks they’re shit, but reckons they could go down well in America – “They’ll listen to anything there”, he tells them. Unfortunately, one of the band members has died, frozen while spending a drunken night in the Siberian outdoors after a rehearsal session. In tribute to their dead colleague, they decide to undertake the tour of the United States with his body in tow. Unsurprisingly however, the Leningrad Cowboys brand of Russian folk doesn’t go down too well in Manhattan, but a New York promoter manages to get them a gig at a wedding in Mexico. On the journey across the States, the band discovers this thing called “rock ‘n’ roll”.
Essentially then, with the incongruous element of these outlandishly dressed, hard drinking characters from Russia with enormous quiffs on the loose in America, the film virtually writes itself - or to be precise – writes itself quite predictably. The band is shamelessly exploited by their manager, who manages to travel, eat and drink in luxury while they are forced to endure hardship, eating scraps and leftovers, picking up what gigs they can along the way in order to sustain their trip. Inevitably, this presents a fraught situation which, along with the performances of the band as they start incorporating rock music into their show and the added surrealism of them carrying around a body on ice in a coffin, there are inevitably a few incidents along the way, but surprisingly, once the initial fun of the situation wears off, there are not too many laughs.
Leningrad Cowboys – Total Balalaika Show (1993)
Having gained official authorisation from the Kremlin to travel outside the country, the Leningrad Cowboys, accompanied by the massed ranks of the Alexandrov Red Army Chorus and Dance Ensemble, perform an outdoor concert for a large enthusiastic audience in Helsinki in June 1993. Who would have thought this obscure Russian folk band would be so popular in Finland...?
Total Balalaika Show is a concert film of the band’s performance that night, The Leningrad Cowboys replete with their quiffs, winkle-pickers and dressed in Red Army uniforms, perform a bizarre eclectic selection of 13 pop classics, rock anthems, and traditional arrangements, but not too much rock ‘n’ roll. No doubt, it’s something of a you-had-to-be-there occasion, but it comes across surprisingly well on film. The distinct styles of the Leningrad Cowboys and the Red Army Chorus complement each other amazing well on songs as varied as ‘Finlandia’, ‘Happy Together’, ‘Delilah’, ‘Kalinka’, an oompah, accordion version of ZZ Top’s ‘Give Me All Your Loving’, a rendition of ‘Sweet Home Alabama’ to show that the band’s trip to America was not in vain, and a riff-heavy metal version of ‘Those Were The Days’.
Completely indefinable, Total Balalaika Show transcends camp, since there is simply no way for this unlikely combination of performers do such material “straight”, and musically, it is actually quite strong. The performers rise fully to the occasion in a big way, filling the stage with a huge choir, Cossack dancers, at least four guitarists, a brass section, a balalaika section (inevitably) and a drum kit in the shape of a tractor. Musically proficient, this is just a big, entertaining show, a celebration of a new openness between Russia and the West, and a fine concert film to boot.
Leningrad Cowboys Meet Moses (1994)
The road to rock ‘n’ roll fame is littered with casualties, and even the Leningrad Cowboys - “the worst rock ‘n’ roll band in the world” - have seen more than half their number fall by the wayside in the intervening years, the victims of their success in Mexico and an over-fondness for tequila. Their fortunes are revived however by the offer of a gig in New York.
Crossing the border illegally, the remaining members of the band discover that their career revival has been orchestrated by their former manager, Vladimir, now called Moses (Matti Pellonpää), who claims he has left behind his despotic ways and has been born-again. Through some obscure, mad notion that involves the theft of the nose from the Status of Liberty and a vision of the second coming where the Saviour will be born to a cow, Moses intends to lead the naturalised Mexican contingent of the remaining Leningrad Cowboys back home to rebuild the band ...if they can evade the clutches of a CIA agent on their trail as they make their return journey across Europe to the promised land.
With such a plot that sees the band rock through France, the Czech Republic, Poland and Russia to the bewildered local populations and the frustration of a French CIA agent (André Wilms), you would expect the film to inspire much hilarity, but Leningrad Cowboys Meet Moses actually falls very flat indeed – almost as flat as the poorly enunciated English dialogue. Visual incongruity is again the main source of any actual humour, and there is indeed some entertainment to be gained from the spoof spaghetti Western opening, as well as band’s arresting stage performances – the Mexican members of the band in particular cutting an absurd figure, especially when the band’s number is augmented by their Red Army uniform-wearing brothers. The film however never really lives up promise of its anarchic plot, which becomes increasingly random as it progresses over the over-long hour-and-a half length of an idea that has already long worn thin.
The Aki Kaurismäki Leningrad Cowboys Collection is released in the UK by Artificial Eye. It contains three films - Leningrad Cowboys Go America (1989), Leningrad Cowboys Total Balalaika Show (1993) and Leningrad Cowboys Meet Moses (1994). Each of the films are relatively short and fit comfortably onto individual single-layer discs, even with the few extra features included on the Total Balalaika Show disc. The DVDs are in PAL format and encoded for Region 2.
The video quality is consistently good across all three films, as it is with the other three Aki Kaurismäki Collection sets. All three films are presented in anamorphic widescreen and all appear to be progressively encoded. Leningrad Cowboys Go America looks the best, with excellent colour and tone definition – although skin tones tend to look slightly pinkish – and excellent levels of clarity, sharpness and detail. Although, like the other transfers, it may be derived from a theatrical print – reel-change marks are occasionally evident – there are no significant marks, scratches or dustspots. Total Balalaika Show looks almost as good, the concert coming across well, with excellent clarity and detail. It’s hard to imagine it could look much better. Leningrad Cowboys Meet Moses has perhaps a little more grain evident than the other prints - which is particularly noticeable in night-time exteriors – but otherwise there is little to complain about.
Dolby Digital 2.0 soundtracks are included for each of the films, and although they are certainly not high-quality recordings, they are all excellent and perfectly suited to the material, with no defects, noise or distortion. The music, particularly on the concert film, comes over well, with clarity, good definition and separation of individual instruments.
Optional English subtitles are provided for selected parts of Leningrad Cowboys Go America only. They are in a white font and are clearly readable. Subtitles are not required for the concert film Total Balalaika Show and dialogue on Leningrad Cowboys Meet Moses is almost entirely in English – difficult though it may be to understand at times.
All the extra features are included on Disc 2 Total Balalaika Show. They consist of five short films that are essentially promo-videos for Leningrad Cowboy songs, though of course, made by Aki Kaurismäki, they have delightfully absurd little storylines and styles. Rocky VI (8:17) has been superseded by a genuine sixth Rocky sequel, but it couldn’t be as good as Kaurismäki’s silent b&w version, accompanied only by a Leningrad Cowboys soundtrack, where a bushy-eyebrowed Russian contender takes on a rather weedy looking Rocky. Thru The Wire (5:32) sees a convict escape from a prison somewhere between Alabama and Utah, but he has time on his getaway to perform on stage with the Leningrad Cowboys. Those Were The Days (4:27) is set in Paris, where one of the bequiffed has trouble having his donkey admitted to a Parisian winebar. A cover-version of Nancy Sinatra’s These Boots (4:35) is set to a video depicting “A History of Finland 1952-69” – the story of a young Leningrad Cowboy’s formative years growing up in Finland. L.A. Woman (5:01) is a (relatively) straight music video of the band performing on stage.
After the delights of the previous three Aki Kaurismäki Collection sets, the Leningrad Cowboys Collection comes as something of a disappointment, failing to live up to the director’s other more finely-tuned tales of little people struggling to attain their modest dreams, and failing even to live up to the gloriously barking outline descriptions of their content. In reality, the Leningrad Cowboys seems to be little more than an extension of the characters and situation of Kaurismäki’s Calamari Union (1985) – a rather limited situation that had already been exhausted by the director - combined with The Blues Brothers. This thin material is worth a spoof promo-video or two, as the enjoyable short films included in this set attest, but stretched out into the full-length features Leningrad Cowboys Go America and Leningrad Cowboys Meet Moses is more than the material can sustain, no matter how characteristically dry and understated the humour of the absurd situations. Surprisingly, it’s the inspired pairing of the Leningrad Cowboys with the Red Army Chorus and Dance Company in the Total Balalaika Show concert film where the sense of absurdity is allowed to arise out of their performance, that the director’s creation finds its best platform. Artificial Eye’s presentation of these films can’t be faulted, with fine progressive, anamorphic transfers and appropriate extra features.