[7 March 2004]
Formed out of the ashes of the excellent Three Mile Pilot, Pall Jenkins and Tobias Nathaniel have taken their celebrated knack for epic songwriting to gothic heights with the Black Heart Procession. With four full-length albums under their belt, they have remained prolific and interesting, despite running over the same thematic ground. Combining Tom Waits’s atmospheric sensibilities with somber, piano-laden dirges, the Black Heart Procession swear that love will destroy you. After three albums of unending heartbreak, the Black Heart Procession released the concept album Amore Del Tropico. Based on a fictional, tropical murder mystery, the band took on a noticeable South American influence on their tried and true funeral marches.
Two years after its release, the Black Heart Procession have taken one more ambitious step and filmed a feature length movie based around the music of Amore Del Tropico. The film, Tropics of Love, thankfully eschews dialogue in favor of a musical score, and any narrative is gleaned from watching the action on screen. A heady mix of fantasy and film noir, Tropics Of Love, like the band themselves, doesn’t take itself too seriously, and the result is an engaging, relentlessly fun film.
Co-written and directed by Pall Jenkins, Tropics of Love is more David Lynch than John Huston. The film immediately puts into question the reality of the events we’re about to see, as it opens in a rock club with the Black Heart Procession performing on stage. Are we seeing a play within a film? The question is never really answered, as we are quickly plunged into the failing relationship between Luigi (Roman Dmitri Dziensuwski) and Maria (Traci Woolley). As we trace the downfall of their relationship, it’s not until the middle act of the film that Maria is mysteriously murdered. Thus enters the Inspector (Matthew Hoyt), who, after arresting prime suspect Luigi, must carefully reconsider the evidence before him.
I’ve recently started listening to the commentary tracks on the wonderful DVD collection of Mr. Show. Commenting on their budget for the show, Bob Odenkirk remarks that the audience often doesn’t care about the “realness” of a given set, and reminisces of the Mr. Show theatre days when beards would be nothing more than black electrical tape stuck in strips to their face. That same sense of low-budget reality is brought to the Tropics of Love. While, for the most part, the film cleverly avoids its obvious lack of funding, there are a couple of moments where it becomes apparent, particularly during the “courtroom” scenes and the “jail” scenes. But this hardly matters, as it is inessential to the enjoyment and understanding of the film. In fact, it brings to the film a sense of familiarity and warmth, and makes palpable the joy the filmmakers must have had making the film.
If I have one quibble with the DVD, it is the absence of a commentary track. Such an obvious labor of love almost demands a behind the scenes look at the film. The outtakes, which show the actors goofing around, only makes this omission more glaring. It would’ve been nice to know how the filmmakers and the band got around their budget constraints in shooting the film.
Tropics of Love won’t make new fans out of anyone who doesn’t already like the Black Heart Procession, but for fans this is a real treat. Tropics of Love is easily the Black Heart Procession’s finest achievement to date and a culmination of the musical vision they have been honing for more than six years. It will be interesting to see what direction the band chooses to take next, as Tropics of Love feels like the end of one chapter and the beginning of another.