Manchester Metropolitan University’s Robert Hamilton inspects Kaurismaki’s Leningrad Cowboys Go America…
Released in 1989, Kaurismaki’s Leningrad Cowboys Go America was one of his biggest hits, leading to two sequels, Leningrad Cowboys Meet Moses and Total Balalaila Show. The film begins ‘somewhere in the Tundra’ in a village a group of musicians with foot long quiffs and winkle pickers audition their atrocious polkas in front of a mysterious record executive and their wide boy manager, Vladimir played by Matti Pellonpaa, Kaurismaki’s long time collaborator. They are advised to America ‘where they will put up with anything’.
Accompanied by their frozen bass player in a makeshift coffin that gives his quiff, winkle pickers and guitar room to protrude, they set off, as many a hopeful band do, to conquer America. Though their collective demeanour is more of a deadpan ensemble of existential weariness and acceptance, which gives the players space to develop the distinctive Kaurismakian humour and tone. The flight to the USA gives them time to learn English at an unrealistic speed- a typical Aki touch.
As with all of Kaurismaki’s movies, the normal rules of action, reaction and consequence don’t apply. Narrative norms are suspended in a surreal series of events that sometimes have a punch-line or just end without rhyme or reason but nevertheless follow an internal logic that gives Leningrad Cowboys Go America an interior voice where the unexpected is always expected or at least, anticipated and accepted. In Memphis, a dog waits outside a steak restaurant with the band while Vladimir enjoys dinner. He asks for a doggie bag. The dog eats the steak while the hungry band look on and is seen no more- merely the punch-line in a shaggy doggie bag story.
In a New York audition, an optimistic American booker offers the band Carnegie Hall or Shea Stadium. After hearing them, he offers only a gig in Mexico playing at his cousin’s wedding and a dime in advance. After buying a Cadillac from a bit part Jim Jarmusch, they set off to Mexico in an episodic series of adventures, gigs, rebellions and unexpected meetings through Memphis, New Orleans, Galveston, Langtry, Del Rio and Mexico. I think of it as an alternative Easy Rider. Hopper’s film is full of hippie angst and druggie, dreamy, liberal ideals as Wyatt and Billy look for a lost America. The Leningrad Cowboys only goal is to reach their gig in Mexico while getting enough to eat, smoke and drink, all of which prove to be problematic and the source of much of the film’s humour. I don’t think they would know an ideal if it nailed their winkle pickers to the floor and set fire to their quiffs.
Leningrad Cowboys Go America is a glorious European perversion of the road movie, dumping much of the genre’s self reflective, self-mythologizing, self-aggrandisement for a series of absurdist set-ups that debunk that myth. Their hilarious cover of ‘Born to Be Wild’ in a biker bar blasts Wyatt and Billy away before the rednecks get to them. Kaurismaki’s response to the slow motion explosion of Wyatt’s chopper is ‘Shit Happens’.
Word by Robert Hamilton, Senior Lecturer, Film and Media Studies, Manchester Metropolitan University.
Leningrad Cowboys Go America screens on Wed 23 Aug. Book tickets here.
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