Aki Kaursmäki’s Leningrad Cowboys Go America is the reason that for the last 18 years, I have not been able to buy a bag of onions without smiling. The mock heroic road movie was a formative film for me, but it’s not available on DVD in the U.S. Thanks to the wonders of the Internet, I was finally able to revisit the story of the exuberantly coiffed band “from the tundra” and their tyrannical manager (Matti Pellonpää). Back in 1989, the combination of absurd sight gags and sparse Down By Law aesthetic was unlike anything I’d ever seen before. Come to think of it, there hasn’t been anything quite like it since.
Sent to New York by a communist functionary on the logic that “in America, they like crap,” the Cowboys head off to CBGBs on tractors, pointy shoes gleaming and monstrous duck tails bopping in the breeze. When they get there, it turns out they have never even heard of rock ‘n roll–Madison Square Garden is out, but would they like to play at a wedding in Mexico? Undaunted, the band buys a car from Jim Jarmusch, straps their frozen bass player to the roof, and heads south. Their musical education culminates in a tuba-and-accordion version of “Born to Be Wild” that would make Borat Sagdiyev jump with joy. Marcy’s verdict? “Quite possibly the silliest movie ever made.”
Leningrad Cowboys Go America. Aki Kaurismäki, 1989. ****
- Kaurismäki’s Lights in the Dusk opens in the U.S. next week. The perfect Kaurismäki film is still The Man Without a Past.
After the movie, the Leningrad Cowboys took on a life of their own: I saw them play the KUZ in Mainz, there was a sequel, Leningrad Cowboys Meet Moses, and a concert film, Total Balalaika Show. The official site lists 2007 summer dates. There is no shortage of YouTube clips, including “Born to Be Wild” from the movie and “My Way” with the Red Army Ensemble and Ballet: