The legend has it that one day, Finnish director Aki Kaurismäki got together with musicians Mato Valtonen and Sakke Jarvenppää, of the band Sleepy Sleepers, to discuss a new project the three of them could collaborate on. After the meeting was over, they had come up with the idea to create a fictional music band. Their newborn creation would be a Russian band — Siberian to be more precise — whose members would don pointy elf shoes, style their hair with outlandish pompadours and sing covers of famous American and British rock songs. This is how the Leningrad Cowboys were born.
In 1986, Kaurismäki directed their first musical video; a black and white pugilistic extravaganza appropriately titled Rocky VI. Paying homage to the Sylvester Stallone movies, the short film also recurs to cinematography and editing techniques made famous in Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull. Originally intended to be seen as a curio, it put the Leningrad Cowboys in the art circuit and before long, Kaurismäki thought it would be a good idea to have them star in their own feature length movie.
Three years later he released Leningrad Cowboys Go America. The film opens in a Siberian village where we meet the Cowboys. They play for an uninterested crowd and we perceive that they aren’t particularly loved by their audience. Worried about their commercial failure, their manager Vladimir (Matti Pellonpää) decides it might be a good idea for them to try their luck in America, a place where “people will listen to anything”.
The cowboys pack their bags and set out on their first American tour, taking with them a coffin containing one of their bandmates who froze before their departure. Characterized by the deadpan humor that has made him one of the most iconic contemporary European auteurs, Kaurismäki, directs the film with the eye of a documentarist who can’t stop grinning while he shoots. Each scene is carefully constructed so that we can laugh and be entertained, while the director deconstructs the idea of the American dream.
The Cowboys go from dive bar to dive bar, always willing to put on a great show for usually apathetic patrons. It’s a true joy to watch them belt out classic rock songs, completely unaware that their look is completely ridiculous. However, by the time the movie is over we have become used to their strangeness; more than that we admire their affability to join other cultures. In the last scene, as they play at a Mexican wedding, we understand that Kaurismäki was deliveringa larger, almost hopeful, commentary on the idea of upcoming globalization.
When Leningrad Cowboys Go America was made, the Berlin Wall was still in place and the post-Chernobyl USSR was still considered a mild threat to world peace. Things were changing though, and by the time Kaurismäki decided to revisit them, not only had the Leningrad Cowboys become a worldwide phenomenon, but the sociopolitical context had changed, as well.
If some felt that Go America had been a slight sell out to Western thinking, the director would play with their minds a bit more when he made Leningrad Cowboys Meet Moses.
This sequel opens in Mexico, after the Cowboys have been abandoned by Vladimir. “Five years have passed since the worst rock ’n’ roll band in the world left their home village in Siberia” reads the initial title cards. We learn that the Cowboys obtained mild commercial success in Mexico, but most of the members became obsessed with tequila and died of alcohol poisoning.
When we see them again, they have created a special Mexican branch of the band specializing in regional and mariachi music. As always, it’s the delivery that makes every moment priceless. Kaurismäki captures them with the unobtrusive eye of a nature photographer, letting them thrive in their new habitat. Their world is shaken once again, when Vladimir returns and announces that now his name is Moses. “Obey me in all things” he demands of them, reassuring them that he will finally showed them to the promise land; in this case, he’s taking them back to Russia.
Before that though, he’s booked the for a gig in Coney Island, where the good Cowboys get involved in countless disasters, including an act of vandalism on the Statue of Liberty. Upon their return home, Vladmir offers to help them put together the band and achieve the difficult feat of becoming prophets in their own land. If the first movie was pure mockumentary delight, the sequel is darker in its themes and resolution. The droll humor is pervaded by the notion that things in a once hopeful world, had reverted to a state of tragic normalcy. The American dream wasn’t a guarantee, anymore.
The last entry in the series comes in the shape of the documentary, Total Balalaika Show, a taped version of a concert the Cowboys gave in Helsinki in 1993 featuring the Alexandrov ensemble. An essay in this DVD boxset points out that Chris Marker said that this event would be the perfect example of the “brief autumn of Utopia that followed the fall of the Empire”. He might have been right, given that every number in this concert is a curious piece of art: from traditional Russian dancers, to covers of Edith Piaf and Lynyrd Skynyrd, all coming together beautifully by a strange cover of The Turtles’ “Happy Together” which makes sense despite the oddity that surrounds it. (See the video, below.)
Considering that this is one of Criterion’s Eclipse sets (known for their lack of bonus features and lower resolution transfers) Eclipse Series 29: Aki Kaurismäki’s Leningrad Cowboys, is truly a valuable addition to any film lover’s collection. Not only will you get to see where Sacha Baron Cohen might have gotten inspiration to come up with Borat, you will also see the glorious Kaurismäki at his most playful. Rounding up this superb boxset are all the music videos the director made for the Leningrad Cowboys. Most notable is their cover of Nancy Sinatra’s “These Boots” which they transform from a hip shaking ’60s anthem to a thumping ode to hard labor and Russian tradition.
Whether you think of it as cultural transgression or subversive farce, the one undeniable thing is that you’ll find yourself tapping your feet along to the Leningrad Cowboys’ beautifully bizarre melodies.