Case Number 22660: Small Claims Court

AKI KAURISMAKI'S LENINGRAD COWBOYS

Leningrad Cowboys Go America
Criterion // 1989 // 79 Minutes // Not Rated
Leningrad Cowboys Meet Moses
Criterion // 1994 // 94 Minutes // Not Rated
Total Balalaika Show
Criterion // 1994 // 57 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Gordon Sullivan // November 3rd, 2011

The Charge

"Go America, everything goes there."

The Case

Aki Kaurismäki is not a well-known filmmaker in America (or in his native Finland, I gather). Based on his work here, the closest American approximation we have is Jim Jarmusch in his Eighties period. That might not help the average moviegoer, but chances are good that those adventurous enough to be interested in a set entitled Aki Kaurismäki's Leningrad Cowboys will probably have heard of Jarmusch, so the comparison is apt. Both filmmakers share a deadpan style that isn't afraid to let a scene unfold, and both filmmaker share an obsession with the state of early rock 'n' roll film culture in the present day. Although it's not evident in the Leningrad Cowboy films, they both also share a love of Joe Strummer's punk stylings. Finally, the comparison is apt because the first two Leningrad Cowboy movies play like Mystery Train-era Jarmusch remaking This is Spinal Tap. Although he's hardly going to generate hit films, Criterion has seen fit to grant Kaurismäki his second entry into the Eclipse line by collecting all three of Kaurismäki Leningrad Cowboy films with some extras.

Aki Kaurismäki's Leningrad Cowboys includes three films:

Leningrad Cowboys Go America
The Leningrad Cowboys, a terrible Finnish rock group -- complete with impossible pompadours and crazy shoes -- decides to try to make it in America. When they arrive in the Big Apple the only job they can get is playing a second-rate wedding -- in Mexico. The group buys a car (from Jim Jarmusch, in a great cameo) and heads south, stopping at every opportunity to treat the locals to their sweet rock 'n' roll stylings.

Leningrad Cowboys Meet Moses
After the success of their music, the Leningrad Cowboys are washed up in old Mexico. However, their promoter in NYC promises them a gig if they can make it up there. Of course their former promoter is now also a cult leader who wants to lead them to the new Eden of Siberia.

Total Balalaika Show
This one is essentially an hour-long concert documentary, with the Leningrad Cowboys playing Senate Square in Helsinki with the Alexandrov Red Army Chorus and Dance Ensemble. They run through a medley of hits backed by the gigantic chorus and troupe of dancers.

Deadpan is a term that gets thrown around a lot when Kaurismäki gets brought up. Though it might be an overused term, it does capture something of the effect of watching these films. On the one hand we're watching something utterly ridiculous. From the semi-competent musical performances to the crazy hair and clothing styles and contrast between the band and the audience, everything seems incongruous in a funny way. On the other hand everything about Leningrad Cowboys is utterly sincere (even if not entirely serious all the time). The band gives everything to performances, and Kaurismäki films their shenanigans just like he was filming the greatest rock 'n' roll band in the world. This combination of the ridiculous and the sincere gives Kaurismäki's films a unique flavor.

Obviously the specter of parody hangs over all of these films. Most viewers are familiar with the work of Christopher Guest, especially the Criterion-released This is Spinal Tap. Just like with Spinal Tap, the Leningrad Cowboys became a phenomenon outside of their filmic universe, which adds an extra layer of amusement to the later films in the series. That tension between what's real and what's not informs all three of the films, though, even before The Leningrad Cowboys became something like a real band. That could easily turn watching the films into a scholastic exercise or puzzle, with the viewer trying to figure out which parts are scripted, which parts are improv, and whether crowd reactions are genuine. Luckily Kaurismäki and his actors give it their all, and the film's tone makes any kind of worrying about authenticity seem absurd.

These three films are released as part of Criterion's Eclipse line, which means they don't get the lavish remastering and extras package that standard Criterion releases get. With that said, they look pretty darn amazing for their age and budget. Surprisingly, it's the oldest film -- The Leningrad Cowboys Go America -- that looks the best in this set. There's a bit of print damage here and there, but colors are bold, blacks are deep, and detail and grain are finely balanced. The second film looks a little bit murkier, but still imminently watchable, and it appears as if the third film is limited more by its nature as a concert documentary than by anything in this transfer. All three films get solid stereo tracks that do a great job balancing the dialogue (a mixture of English and Finnish) with the sometimes raucous score. There are English subtitles for those moments in Finnish.

In a near-unprecedented move, this Eclipse set gets some video-based extras. Five Leningrad Cowboys music videos are included and they fit quite neatly into the Leningrad Cowboys world created in collaboration with Kaurismäki. In addition we get the usual Eclipse essays in each of the slim keep cases; these talk up the films' histories, production, and reception.

One very minor quibble: there is another Leningrad Cowboys film out there -- Global Balalaika Show that was not directed by Kaurismäki. Fans of the Leningrad Cowboys (who owe no allegiance to Kaurismäki) might be disappointed that they can't get the complete Cowboys experience in one set.

Quibbles aside, these flicks are definitely belong in the "cult" section of the video store. The Cowboys are ridiculous, Kaurismäki's tone is odd, and the experience of watching a fake band become a real band while playing a fake band might bake the brain of some viewers. If the idea of Jim Jarmusch remaking Spinal Tap doesn't work for you, then this is a set to steer clear of.

Aki Kaurismäki's Leningrad Cowboys includes some strange and wonderful films that are amusing, touching, and a little bit silly. The Eclipse commitment to bringing out obscure films that would otherwise go ignored is maintained here, and the set does a great job contextualizing these bizarre flicks in the work and world of the Cowboys and Kaurismäki.

The Verdict

Kaurismäki and the Cowboys are free to rock on.

Review content copyright © 2011 Gordon Sullivan; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC

Scales of Justice, Leningrad Cowboys Go America
Judgment: 88

Perp Profile, Leningrad Cowboys Go America
Video Formats:
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic

Audio Formats:
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (Finnish)

Subtitles:
* English

Running Time: 79 Minutes
Release Year: 1989
MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Distinguishing Marks, Leningrad Cowboys Go America
* None

Scales of Justice, Leningrad Cowboys Meet Moses
Judgment: 85

Perp Profile, Leningrad Cowboys Meet Moses
Video Formats:
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic

Audio Formats:
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (Finnish)

Subtitles:
* English

Running Time: 94 Minutes
Release Year: 1994
MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Distinguishing Marks, Leningrad Cowboys Meet Moses
* None

Scales of Justice, Total Balalaika Show
Judgment: 85

Perp Profile, Total Balalaika Show
Video Formats:
* 1.66:1 Anamorphic

Audio Formats:
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (Finnish)

Subtitles:
* English

Running Time: 57 Minutes
Release Year: 1994
MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Distinguishing Marks, Total Balalaika Show
* Music Videos

Accomplices
* IMDb: Leningrad Cowboys Go America
http://us.imdb.com/title/tt0097728/combined

* IMDb: Leningrad Cowboys Meet Moses
http://us.imdb.com/title/tt0107384/combined

* IMDb: Total Balalaika Show
http://us.imdb.com/title/tt0111460/combined