The notion of returning to your roots is at the core of every life crisis. Getting back to the comfort of the past, to the people who supposedly know you best and longest suggests a security that, sadly, is just not there. No, going back home in an attempt to find the same old acceptance, happiness, personal insight, and situational ease proves the oft cited maxim against the possibility of doing same. In Troubadours, a rousing indie effort focusing on this very subject, we learn that connectivity and the friendships forged in same can be just as destructive as the traumas tricking you into taking the trip back.
Art Stone left his father’s farm with big, broad shouldered dreams. But all Chicago provided was a series of dead end opportunities and a broken heart. When he catches his girlfriend in bed with another man, he finally slips into depression. At the behest of his buddy, he heads back to his parent’s property, eager to work the land and basically find himself. But Art soon runs into his old gang, a group of farm hands and menial laborers who use the world around them as an excuse to get drunk, get rowdy, and get in trouble. With his heavily religious relatives looking down their nose at him, and a new girl turning his head, Art must decide what’s important - a return trip to the city to seek his fortune, or the role of tripwire troubadour in a one horse town.
The brainchild of three outsider filmmakers - Tom Galassi, Tom Synder, and Adam Galassi - and tinged with the kind of kooky experimentalism that both electrifies and irritates, Troubadours (new to DVD from Facets Video) takes its sweet time telling a rather intriguing tale. It wants to explore how post-modern machismo has been mitigated, Fight Club style, by a society that stresses getting in touch with your feelings and a more therapeutic way of dealing with decisions. Within this collection of types - the radical, the flag waver, the nonconformist, the raging conservative - we see snippets of the way the world works circa 2008. Amidst the pain of misspent youth and a growing need for maturity, our hero stumbles bravely along, looking to understand himself by coming to terms with the people who played a part in his formation.
As Art, Tom Galassi gives the kind of performance that seems almost invisible at first. He is all reaction, letting others speak for him or even suggest a psychological path to explore. His responses color in the character nuances, allowing silence and stillness to speak volumes. Similarly, the way in which he interacts with his pals provides equally important insights. We can see how Chad’s confrontational stance protects him from outside criticism, while the fate of others rests firmly in their lost boys grasp. There is a clear undercurrent of arrested adolescence here, of boys being boys for no good goddamn reason, and when the filmmakers let the festivities go on too long, Troubadours stumbles. When they keep it to conversations, the movie often amazes.
There is also a nice use of local color here, the Southern Illinois farmland providing a nice bit of forgotten Americana. Equally effective are the insert shots of the landscape, the unique approach to capturing the countryside - almost piecemeal, if you like - giving the film a wonderful somnambulistic edge. The music also aids in creating atmosphere, though the reliance on shoe-gazing groups like My Morning Jacket and Devil in a Woodpile frequently feel like outtakes from 1994. As directors, the two Galassis and Synder tend toward intimate set-ups and random quick cuts. The upside to such a presentation is that the film feels true and very authentic. The downside is that we often experience a kind of creative whiplash. There are definitely times when it’s tough to get our bearings.
Another aspect that may cause some concern is the obvious decision to rely on improv to flesh out many of the scenes. As part of the DVD package, we are privy to outtakes and deleted scenes which show how frequently off base this material became. Still, these added features do expand the viewing experience, especially when the subject of the music comes up. Perhaps the only thing missing here is a full length audio commentary. Tom has a unique past (he was part of a regional company of the Blue Man Group), and many of his costars come from similarly interesting backgrounds. Besides, their narrator presence during the film could help explains some of the narrative hiccups and the use of certain symbols (the ringing cellphone, the monkey mask).
Still, in a genre which typically renders itself stagnant by an overreliance on self-indulgent and absorbed strategies, the open ended and loose feel of Troubadours definitely wins us over. By the time we realize we’ve just witnessed another manboy making up his mind about life, we are awash in a sea of good feelings and genuine emotion. There will be some who find this well meaning meandering to be more or less an unfocused experiment in homespun hedonism, but that’s part of Troubadours’ charm. While it may be impossible to return to your past, a fine cinematic experience out of the attempt is obviously possible. The Galassis and Synder understand this all too well.