Following my three previous reviews, it’s clear from the off that Finnish filmmaking behemoth Aki Kaurismäki is also a passionate audiophile. With some superb pop soundtracks under his belt, we turn to an entirely different beast in the form of his 1989 road movie comedy Leningrad Cowboys Go America.
Although their name may confuse, Leningrad Cowboys aren’t desert roamers. A nine-member polka band, the film starts with them auditioning for a big break in Lapland, only to be told they should venture to the States, the land of the free where stars are born.
Naive, pliable and with a rudimentary grasp of English speak, the Cowboys and their psychotic manager Vladimir (played by Kaurismäki regular Matti Pellonpää) journey to the west in search of fame and fortune, but their energetic rendition of homeland gypsy tunes fails to impress the first promoter they encounter. He nonetheless offers them a gig at his cousin’s wedding in Mexico, and suggests that, if they want to make it big, they better wise up to the rock n’ roll movement. Purchasing a Dummy’s guide to the subculture movement, and buying a beat-up car from a wise-cracking mechanic (who is played by American Kaurismäki buff Jim Jarmusch), the boys head south, stoping off en route local dives along the way for a series of small one-time gigs that almost always end with broken bottles, tears, and bitter disappointment.
A Finnish fish-out-of-water musical, Leningrad Cowboys Go America recalls John Landis’ Blues Brothers from nine years previous. Both have a brutally meagre storyline and plot arch, with the film being carried by flamboyant musical numbers and inspired farce. Adorning dishevelled black suits, ludicrously poised widow’s peak hairstyles and Persian slippers that could pass from homemade shivs, there’s a great deal of sight gags permeating throughout the film. The Cowboys’ incongruity to the surfy music they end up playing is initially hilarious, although the length sets end up become tedious. Unfortunately, the Leningrad Cowboys are neither bad enough to be funny nor good enough to sustain interest.
Somewhat begrudgingly, it’s probably the most lucrative Aki Kaurismäki cultural product ever. Much like Christopher Guest, Michael McKean and Harry Shearer’s heavy metal creation Spinal Tap, the parody has long outlived their cinematic debut. Two more films later and twenty years on, the Leningrad Cowboys continue to take worldwide audiences by storm, selling out shows with their crude interpretations of Americana classics and Mexican rhythms.
A surprisingly upbeat, borderline doltish film in Kaurismäki’s oeuvre, Leningrad Cowboys Go America is for the most part a surreal, imaginative and often very funny tale of culture- clash, which avoids condescension or hackneyed stereotyping, of it’s larger than life, boot-stomping bandleaders.