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HAIR, THERE, AND EVERYWHERE
Are the Leningrad Cowboys for real? With pointy pompadours reaching to impossible heights above their expressionless faces and needlelike winklepicker shoes that could have been torn from the feet of oversize elves, they might be a hungover collective dream of Elvis and Monty Python. And judging by their music, a so-earnest-it-must-be-ironic amalgam of polka, punk, rock, and Russian and American folk, they would seem to be strictly parodic, something like a Finnish rockabilly Spinal Tap. Yet for all their self-conscious eccentricity, the Leningrad Cowboys, put on the map by Finnish director Aki Kaurismäki, are no joke. They’re a genuine band, and the stars of a throng of Kaurismäki films, including a concert documentary, music videos, and two comic features that grant them their own mythical, fish-out-of-water narrative.
The Leningrad Cowboys were born in 1986, in a bar. It was there that Sakke Järvenpää and Mato Valtonen, members of the anarchic Finnish pop-punk group the Sleepy Sleepers, first told their friend Kaurismäki about their idea for a new band—called the Leningrad Cowboys as a gag about the waning virility of the USSR, with which Finland had always had a fragile relationship—hoping he would direct their first music video. The principals that day were hardly unknowns: the director had made a number of films, some of them with musical themes, including a band-on-the-road documentary that he and his older brother, Mika, had collaborated on, called The Saimaa Gesture (1981), and Calamari Union (1985), starring rockers in the main roles; the Sleepy Sleepers, known for their political irreverence, had a large following themselves. The collaboration resulted first in the darkly comic, black-and-white music video “Rocky VI” (1986), in which a spindly Yank boxer in American-flag trunks meets his doom at the hands of a beetle-browed Siberian behemoth. After two more videos, “Thru the Wire” (1987) and “L.A. Woman” (1988), Kaurismäki decided to create a feature-length film starring the Cowboys, who had by then released their first studio album, 1917–1987. The playful Leningrad Cowboys Go America (1989), which combines Kaurismäki’s deadpan humor with the band’s outré goofiness, would be the group’s breakout—a hit in Finland and abroad.
To heighten the Cowboys’ absurdity, Kaurismäki turned their run-of-the-mill pompadours into gravity-defying showstoppers, and designed those preposterous shoes to match. As the film opens, the band is being sent off to America, after their manager, Vladimir (the director’s friend and frequent star Matti Pellonpää), finds he can’t book any shows in their fictionalized tundra homeland. They pack up their accordions, tubas, fiddles, fur coats, and the frozen corpse of their beloved bassist and take off for the U.S., learning English on the plane. Once the Cowboys reach New York, an apathetic booking agent hires them for his cousin’s wedding—in Mexico. So they make their way south in a used car—bought from a cameoing Jim Jarmusch—playing impromptu gigs in dive bars, juke joints, and cocktail lounges in Memphis, New Orleans, and beyond, and covering such American standbys as “Rock and Roll Is Here to Stay” and “Tequila” while barely cracking a smile. They prove oddly endearing—to us and to their audiences in the film. Though their comic tale is ostensibly one of culture clash, the ultimate joke may be how natural the Cowboys seem in America—unlikely hipster stars in the New World.
BACK IN THE FORMER USSR
Leningrad Cowboys Go America was such a box-office draw that it was only natural Aki Kaurismäki would book its stars for another major gig. Since making their farcical feature debut, the band had become a bona fide hit: they played sold-out shows across Europe and, in 1992, released the album We Cum from Brooklyn, a title that reflected the group’s newly international identity as well as its cheeky appropriation of American culture. Kaurismäki had directed more music videos for them in the meantime, “Those Were the Days” (1992) and “These Boots” (1993). On the world stage, of course, even bigger changes had been set in motion: soon after Go America was released in 1989, the Berlin Wall fell, and in 1991, the Soviet Union collapsed. Naturally, Kaurismäki had to reflect this new reality in his second feature starring these fictively Russian rockers.
Leningrad Cowboys Meet Moses (1994) was not destined to be embraced with the same fervor as the lighter-hearted Go America, but it’s in many ways a more challenging and adventurous film. At the end of the first feature, the Cowboys are in Mexico, happy and drunk, but now, despite success at local weddings and a top-ten hit, they are foundering, as too many members have died from alcoholism. The remaining Cowboys get word that Vladimir (Matti Pellonpää), their despotic former manager, who fled into the desert at the climax of Go America, has scheduled a performance in Coney Island. When the comrades arrive, however, they find that Vladimir has summoned them under a false—and bizarre—pretense. Claiming to have “seen the light,” and glaring from behind a jumbo beard, he intones, “Call me Moses and obey me in all things . . . so I can lead you back home to your people.” With little protest, the Cowboys agree to set sail with this born-again prophet in a tiny boat from the Coney Island shore, back to their home in distant Siberia. Meet Moses becomes the inverse of the first film, a return to paradise after a failed stab at the American dream. Meanwhile, the Cowboys are being pursued by a CIA agent, who (correctly) suspects that one of them has stolen the Statue of Liberty’s nose.
Of the film’s inability to connect with audiences (and many critics), Kaurismäki said, with a wink, that it was “inspired by the Old Testament, and I realized too late that no one had read it.” In fact, it was more than just the religious burlesque that elicited what Kaurismäki referred to as “disproportionately aggressive responses” from the very art-house audiences that had embraced the original. As the Cowboys wind through Europe—from France and Germany to the Czech Republic and Poland—they encounter desperate landscapes. Stopping at pubs and hotels and, one rainy night, a parking garage along the way to perform covers of such numbers as “Lonely Man” and “Rivers of Babylon,” the band finds itself in some of the least picturesque corners of the Continent. Back in their Siberian village, however, the scene turns sunny and bursting with friendly faces—a more authentic place, perhaps, than points farther West. The director explained audiences’ discomfort thus: “You can’t behave so impudently toward Europe and say that, in some way or other, Russia would be a better place.” Kaurismäki’s next collaboration with the Leningrad Cowboys would be just as provocative—if more joyous.
The mordant Leningrad Cowboys Meet Moses was followed briskly by a far more crowd-pleasing film about the band. Total Balalaika Show (1994) documents a huge concert that took place in Helsinki’s Senate Square on June 12, 1993, featuring not only the Leningrad Cowboys but also the entire 150-person Alexandrov Red Army Chorus and Dance Ensemble, and that was reportedly witnessed by a crowd of 70,000 people. This staggering and more than a touch surreal event was at once a robust show of post-Soviet solidarity between Finland and Russia and a monumental display of kitsch, captured for posterity by Aki Kaurismäki with a loving, energetic rigor (though due to rights issues, not every song is included in the film).
Total Balalaika Show, named for the traditional Russian string instrument, is at times outlandish, at times stirring, and always musically invigorating. There’s a strange mellifluousness in the dovetailing of the Red Army Chorus’s hearty classical chant with the Cowboys’ pop-rock braggadocio. The set list alternates between melodic country and rhythm-and-blues standards like Wilbert Harrison’s “Let’s Work Together,” Bob Dylan’s “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door,” and Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama”; traditional Russian folk tunes, including “Kalinka” and “Dark Eyes”; and patriotic hymns like “Finlandia.” Lyrically, the bluntest choice is the Turtles’ “Happy Together,” here an unabashed paean to we-can-work-it-out optimism, complete with a majestic Red Army tenor soloist who warbles alongside the guitar-vamping Cowboys. The entire extravaganza is both grandiose and disarmingly touching; Variety called it “the most incongruous—and inspired—cross-cultural pairing since Nureyev danced with Miss Piggy,” and legendary French filmmaker Chris Marker remarked in a note to critic and Kaurismäki scholar Peter von Bagh, “When historians will look for a vignette to encompass the brief autumn of utopia that followed the fall of the Empire, I doubt they can find a more significant and poignant one.”
The coming together of Kaurismäki and the Leningrad Cowboys, who still play to sold-out crowds worldwide, has itself always seemed somewhat incongruous: the director’s trademark deadpan miserabilism could be seen as being at odds with the musicians’ visual outrageousness. Yet the relationship has been mutually beneficial, as their films have brought them both untold new fans. And how otherwise would we have known what a dynamic music video maker the art-house darling Kaurismäki could be? In addition to the early “Rocky VI,” “Thru the Wire” (a mini, tongue-in-cheek prison-break melodrama), and “L.A. Woman” (a recording of a barroom performance), he directed two more, “Those Were the Days”—shot in Paris during downtime while making La vie de bohème—and “These Boots,” which, according to Kaurismäki, “in five minutes surveys the history of the desertification of the Finnish countryside through the eyes of a single family.” Well, that and features the riotous image of the Cowboys’ Mato Valtonen as a baby lying in a basket, a goofy grin beaming from his big head as he sings in his distinct Tom Waits–meets–the Muppets rasp. In this number, as with all of Kaurismäki and the band’s collaborations, the sober and the absurd make curiously exquisite bedfellows.
Michael Koresky is staff writer at the Criterion Collection.
Special thanks to Peter von Bagh.