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  • Benjamin May

Leningrad Cowboys Go America (1989) Review

Deep in the icy heart of the tundra reside a rock band known as the Leningrad Cowboys. With their long winklepickers and impossibly high quiffs, they resemble something that crawled out of a radioactive Berlin sewer in the 1980's- and sound like it too. Their style of rock is not appreciated in their native land, except by the village idiot, Igor; whom they shun. Striving for success, they fly to America- carting their frozen guitarist with them, who succumbed to the tundra's biting nighttime temperatures. Travelling across the land of opportunity, the band play honky-tonks and bars, nightclubs and weddings, tracked by Igor all the way. Will the Cowboys find fame and fortune, or will their ballad end in misery?

Written and directed by Aki Kaurismäki- and based on a story by Sakke Järvenpää, Kaurismäki and Mato Valtonen- 'Leningrad Cowboys Go America' is a musical-comedy-cum-road-movie as surreal as it is uproarious. Original and heart-warming, the film paints a whimsical portrait of life on the road as a stranger in a strange land as enthralling as Werner Herzog's 'Stroszek,' albeit less profound and more comedic. Kaurismäki's characters- especially the band manager Vladimir- are idiosyncratic fellows fond of beer and song, both of which they partake in frequently. Watching them on their odyssey is endlessly enjoyable, unexpected and entertaining.

One of the most striking features of Kaurismäki's film is the use of music as a form of expression and communication. The Cowboys play a variety of songs, from traditional Russian folk tunes to rock classics, adapting their style and instruments to suit the different audiences and venues they encounter. The music not only showcases their versatile talent, but also reveals their emotions, aspirations and struggles. When they play 'Born to Be Wild' at a biker bar, for instance, they are expressing their rebellious spirit and desire for freedom. Counter that with their playing 'Knockin' on Heaven's Door' at a funeral, which conveys their grief and hope for redemption. The music also serves as a bridge between cultures, as the band and the Americans they encounter bond over their shared appreciation of music, despite language and cultural differences.

Throughout 'Leningrad Cowboys Go America', composer Mauri Sumén's score works brilliantly, heightening the mood and atmosphere of each scene- whether comedic, dramatic or sentimental- whilst bolstering the ironic contrast between the band's musical style and the American landscape and culture they encounter. Just as eccentric as the Cowboys' appearance, Sumén's work is consummate and right in keeping with the film's quirky tone.

As is Timo Salminen's cinematography, which captures the band's journey with a simple, minimalist style, making great use of static shots, natural lighting and muted colours. A frequent collaborator of Kaurismäki's, Salminen also creates a visual contrast between the band's eccentric appearance and the ordinary surroundings they encounter, as well as one between the vast, barren landscapes of Siberia and America with the cramped interiors of the musical venues and vehicles. Striking and memorable, 'Leningrad Cowboys Go America' contains visuals that continuously impress.

As do the performances from the cast. Matti Pellonpää does particularly fine work as Vladimir the band manager, showcasing much depth of character and emotional perspicuity; making him feel real and multifaceted. Kari Väänänen also impresses as Igor and will surely have you laughing anytime he's on screen. As for the band themselves, whether performing musically or not, they're each and all odd and excellent. Furthermore, the cameo appearances by Richard Boes, Jim Jarmusch and Nicky Tesco are each commendable in their own way- with Tesco's being especially notable.

A strange, surreal musical comedy, Aki Kaurismäki's 'Leningrad Cowboys Go America' is a whole lot of fun from start to finish. Featuring great music and a strong narrative criss-crossing America- as well as stunning cinematography from Timo Salminen- the film plays a little like a funny, musical 'The Straight Story,' or indeed 'Stroszek'. Well-acted and deftly directed, 'Leningrad Cowboys Go America' is a ballad you'll want to hear again.


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