Appellate Judge James A. Stewart fondly recalls his days sitting on a stoop in a Kiev apartment block, which is surprising, since he's never been to the Ukraine.
"In everything I do, I would like to keep the gypsy root."—Eugene Hütz
The link between gypsy folk music and the punkish sounds of Gogol Bordello (heard on The Late Show with David Letterman and at Live Earth) might not be obvious at first glance, but Eugene Hütz is not kidding. In The Pied Piper of Hützovina, Gogol lead singer Hütz tours Eastern Europe, visiting gypsy camps and sharing their sounds with them. The tour begins in Budapest in 2005, as he meets young filmmaker Pavla Fleischer and hits the road, mostly by train.
The title is certainly appropriate. Hütz looks "like an urchin—a peasant from the village," as Fleischer says in the "making of" featurette that accompanies the movie, but he manages to hold people's attention. Whether Hütz is playing his guitar and singing for children in a gypsy camp or for young adults on a stoop at the Kiev apartment block where he once lived, Hütz draws a crowd of fans who clap and dance along. "I was amazed by how quickly he again managed to acquire a following," Fleischer says in the narration at one point. She uses this to advantage with lots of footage of the crowds as Hütz plays.
The music is a big part of Pied Piper, which at times seems more like a moveable concert film than a documentary. That makes a final montage that splices together scenes of Hütz in Eastern Europe with Hütz in a Gogol Bordello concert dramatic and effective. A package of music clips, around half an hour's worth, included in the bonus features gives viewers even more of Hütz; its simple settings—on a train, in an apartment, on a sidewalk, or in a driveway—emphasize the personal nature of his tour.
The concert film feel is a double-edged sword, though, since we mostly see Hütz through his music. There's a nice moment late in the film in which he visits his grandmother in Kiev, eating borscht in her cramped apartment and playing with an ancient sewing machine, but there's less of Hütz just being Hütz than you'd expect. I was also disappointed to see Eastern Europe mostly through train windows. While I understand that Pied Piper isn't a travelogue, train sequences as the musician and the filmmaker travel get repetitive and make the movie feel more distant than it should have been. Part of that may be Hütz's choice, since he asked Fleischer not to film him with his girlfriend. However, it looks like the director missed opportunities to get behind Hütz's exterior or to add context.
At times, I found comments from the director in narration, as when she explains that she forgot to film Hütz saying goodbye to his grandparents or discusses her irritation with Hütz, distracting. When it came to her narrative asides, less definitely would have been more. If you disagree, Fleischer elaborates more in the "making of" featurette.
Shot in high-def video, the picture is about what you'd expect from a documentary, with grain in night scenes and an occasional faded quality during sunny day scenes. There's also the occasional camera jostling. The sound's natural, but it's handled well.
While I didn't like all of Fleischer's choices, what she does with Hütz's performances drew me in. While I'd expect the movie to draw its audience from those already familiar with Hütz or with gypsy music, I wouldn't be surprised if Pied Piper piqued a few brave viewers' interest in gypsy sounds.
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