Leningrad Cowboys Go America

Dir: Aki Kaurismaki, 1989. Starring: Matti Pellonpaa, Kari Vaananen, Sakke Jarvenpaa. Import.
Leningrad Cowboys Go America
Leningrad Cowboys Go America is a rock 'n' roll road movie that pulls inspiration from various classic Western rock movements while observing forced democracy and musical ambition along the way. A Finnish polka band called The Leningrad Cowboys, sporting winklepicker oxfords, black suits and exaggerated pompadours, are trying to make a name for themselves. In their village they perform for a producer and are told that they have a lot of talent. The producer speaks to their manager, Vladimir (Matti Pellonpaa) and advises the group to take off to America and seek fame. The manager makes some calls and sets up a show in Manhattan, claiming that the band is very good and speaks perfect English, which they don't. One of their bass players has recently passed away and they place him in a bizarre coffin, set on taking his corpse with them to America. Stalking them is Igor, (Kari Vaananen) a village reject who wants to join their band and intends on following their course abroad.

While in the air they brush up on their English and are ordered by Vladimir to stop speaking their native language for the time being. Upon arrival the club owner in New York asks them to play for him before he agrees to let them perform. After hearing the band he informs them that their music is just not what he was looking for. He gives them the address of his cousin in Mexico who needs a band for his wedding. According to him, their 10-piece band and ensemble of instruments would do well there, but not in America, where rock 'n' roll is the music of choice. Without a place to go and only $700 between them, they buy a Cadillac and start a road tour across America with Mexico as their final destination.

With a crammed car (a coffin on the roof and two members hanging from the trunk), they go to several states and study rock 'n' roll history and songs from a book. In each community they find nothing but stale audiences that are flabbergasted by their efforts. Starting with a sort of Nick Cave meets The Blues Brothers appeal and offbeat vocals, they perform rockabilly, classic rock, and country sets trying to adapt to the changing tastes across the nation.

Not far behind them is the village reject who's met with just as much despair and misfortune. The band starts to become oppressed by Vladimir, who hoards all the profits and eats well along the journey while the others are starving and munch on onions. They try to "overthrow" him and revolt but are quickly put back in place. By the time the reject catches up to them they've discovered that they have some long-lost family in America. The group eventually grows homesick and worn out by the struggle. They finally reach Mexico, but through their journey they've learned that family, freedom, and fun times are more important than fame.

The movie is hilarious on so many levels, mainly the dry humor. Matti Pellonpaa did an excellent job as the cold and awkward manager who keeps the group on a leash. I'm not exactly well-informed on Finnish government, but I think its safe to say that the movie could also be considered a social commentary. The resemblance to the Blues Brothers and the cheeriness of the band was set against bars full of bitter drunks and bar owners. You could take away the idea that the film is poking fun at the fall of the American music scene (or at least the idea that America produces the best musicians) and the difficulty of being discovered when you've got talent. Though the boys can't seem to impress Americans until they conform to their genre of choice, they are good musicians and great based on their versatility alone. The movie inspired a real band to form under the name Leningrad Cowboys, but the actual members of the group featured in the film are from the group Sleepy Sleepers. This is my first Kaurismaki film and a great movie for cult fans and people who like road-trip movies. As a plus, there are wonderful shots of various locations, from New Orleans and Tennessee, to Texas and everything in between. Oh, and a cameo from Jim Jarmusch.
Posted by:
Edythe Smith
Jul 4, 2011 4:06pm
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