All My Friends Play in Califone
Unlike vampires, which have of late enjoyed a rabid resurgence in pop culture, ghosts have been relegated to the occasional foreign flick (The Orphanage) or mediocre syndication (Medium, The Ghost Whisperer). As a self-proclaimed ghost lover (I’ve been known to voluntarily subject myself to Ghost Hunter marathons on the Syfy channel), I was intrigued by All My Friends are Funeral Singers. Very simply, the movie is about a psychic Zel (Angela Bettis) who lives with a crew of musical ghosts. Aside from her tarot clients, Zel has very little contact with the living world.
All My Friends are Funeral Singers starts out promisingly enough: we learn about the ghosts through snippets of interviews conducted documentary style. (We never learn who’s conducting said interviews, which is a problem, but a minor issue compared to some of the film’s other downfalls). The first ghosts we meet are a couple named Karen and Julius; Karen wears a wedding dress and veil. Julius says “Heaven will be like a million orgasms at once”. Karen pauses before responding. “See, I don’t get that”. Funeral Singers has a few moments of sparkling dialogue, but suffers from poor writing, weak acting, and a disjointed, confusing, and generally uninteresting plot.
Music is an important part of All My Friends are Funeral Singers, and one of its few redeeming qualities. The film shares a title with the latest offering from the band Califone, a group highly praised in indie rock circles for their bluesy/folksy banjo riffs and found-object percussion. Band member Tim Rutili also directed. The film went on tour with the band in 2009, and was screened before or after shows. For fans of Califone, this may have made the film accessible, enjoyable even.
After all, All My Friends are Funeral Singers has a decent soundtrack. The album is, by turns, dreamy and grating – appropriate music for a film about ghosts, the afterlife, and things that go bump in the night. Unfortunately, the film seems haphazardly built around the album and cannot stand on its own. The more musical members of Zel’s ghostly household jam in an empty room for no apparent reason, and don’t really talk. The ghosts who do talk tell us about their deaths in an interview style, which is problematic for several reasons: Why are the ghosts being interviewed? By whom? Certainly not Zel, who takes their presence for granted. Some of the film’s better lines (the bride revealing she hung herself with her something blue) come out of the death interviews, but overall, they are uninspired. The ghosts’ stories of their deaths come across as high school drama class monologues – over acted, way too long, and somewhat pointless.
Zel’s own metaphysical journey is predictable. She isolates herself from the living, and by confining her social and familial interactions to relationships with the dead, effectively prevents herself from living any “real” life. About halfway through the story, the ghosts become preoccupied by a bright light gleaming in the woods beyond Zel’s house. The ghosts assume this is the afterlife or God, and curse Zel for keeping them in worldly confines. Only little Nyla, a small, silent, and undeniably creepy blond child wants to stay with Zel. The story is further unaided by the lackluster living characters peppered throughout the film: there’s Zel’s ho-hum boyfriend Ted; Alan, a half-crazed gambler who uses Zel’s psychic services after seeing her sign on the street; and a middle-aged woman who brings Zel home-cooked meals in exchange for speaking to her dead, cantankerous husband through the vessel of Zel.
Funeral Singers clocks in at 83-minutes, but feels eons longer. Many of the film’s secrets and conception of what it means to be alive, dead, and in between are revealed in an 11th hour discovery of a letter left for Zel by her deceased grandmother. This sloppy and didactic storytelling is in accordance with the rest of the film’s overwrought screenplay. With a wholly different script, the low budget production (grainy picture, Zel’s ramshackle house and patchwork sets) might have been an asset to the film, giving it an authentic quality in concert with Califone’s eccentric, homespun melodies. With a story this unrealized, though, audiophiles are better off skipping the visual component of All My Friends are Funeral Singers and going straight to the record.
The special features section of All My Friends are Funeral Singers showcases two Califone music videos (“Funeral Singers” and “Polish Girls”), which are reminiscent of the film itself, but without the bad acting. Three additional ghost interviews prolong the misery of the worst parts of the film. Two featurettes, Paper Shoes and Joe’s Ear extend the ghostly preoccupations of the main attraction. Both are short wordless films which feature the ghosts in dreamy reverie, and showcase the music of Califone.