Fans of both the unabashedly silly and the dryly deadpan should appreciate Aki Kaurismäki’s Leningrad Cowboys, the latest entry in Criterion’s Eclipse series, which collects two feature films, a concert documentary and five music videos of the eponymous band. Kaurismäki’s creation of the “worst rock-and-roll band in the world” obviously wasn’t a sentiment shared by thousands of fans, propelling the Cowboys to international stardom, sold-out tours and as of this writing, eight albums, including one out this month.
The band’s genesis can be seen in this wryly entertaining box set, and while the feature debut Leningrad Cowboys Go America is probably the only truly essential film in it, chances are good you’ll be charmed by the polka/pop/rock/punk hybrid the band specializes in, and you’ll want to see everything they’ve done.
Kaurismäki made a few music videos of the band first, but their real breakout came with 1989’s Leningrad Cowboys Go America. Unable to find success in their native Siberia, the nine-piece band — complete with trademark unicorn-horn pompadours and impossibly pointy shoes to match — travel to America. With the frozen body of their bassist in tow, they’re led by manager Vladimir (Matti Pellonpää) to the promised land of the United States, where they promptly book a gig. Unfortunately, it’s in Mexico.
After buying a vintage Cadillac from Jim Jarmusch in New York City, the boys make the long road trip south of the border, picking up small gigs in out-of-the-way bars along the way and discovering the scheming of Vladimir, who hoards money, beer and food while leaving his band members to starve.
Leningrad Cowboys Go America is an affectionate ode to America off the beaten path, with dual sensibilities of broad, outrageous humor (mostly thanks to the over-the-top appearance of the Cowboys) and Kaurismäki’s signature low-simmer wit. It’s not unbelievable that the band began to garner a significant following afterward, as the musical performances peppered throughout the film of everything from Finnish folk songs to indelible American hits like “Tequila” have a bizarre charm thanks to the Cowboys’ rocking but unassuming demeanor.
Five years later, Kaurismäki would follow up with Leningrad Cowboys Meet Moses, a somewhat unnecessary but still enjoyable film that finds the band making their initial journey in reverse — back to Siberia by way of desolate European towns. At the end of Go America, the band had found top-10 success in Mexico and had been freed from the grip of imperious manager Vladimir, but five years later, tequila had all but wrecked the band and killed a number of its members.
After wandering off in the desert and being presumed dead in the previous film, Vladimir returns here, claiming to be the reincarnation of Moses, spouting scripture and purporting to be the leader of his people. The remaining band members don’t put up much of a fuss and begin the journey back, but not before Vladimir/Moses (who’s hardly as reformed as he claims) steals the nose of the Statue of Liberty. Subsequently, the band finds themselves trailed by a CIA agent (André Wilms), who will also try to claim the status of ancient prophet as a way to infiltrate the group.
More overtly bizarre in both subject matter and structure, Leningrad Cowboys Meet Moses is nowhere near as cohesive as its predecessor, but it still yields some hilariously strange images, like a scene that features Moses and a band member engaging in a literary battle between the Old Testament and The Communist Manifesto.
The third disc in the set features Total Balalaika Show — a concert documentary of the Cowboys’ 1994 performance in Helsinki’s Senate Square, along with the Alexandrov Red Army Chorus and Dance Ensemble. Reportedly, 70,000 people attended the concert, and this straightforward, hour-long documentation of the event is surreally joyous, as traditional Russian songs intermingle with covers of Bob Dylan, Lynyrd Skynyrd and The Turtles. Disc three also includes five music videos — the pre-feature film “Rocky VI,” “Thru the Wire” and “L.A. Woman” along with “Those Were the Days” and “These Boots.”
If you thought Spinal Tap was the only fictional band to achieve major real-world notoriety, think again. The blank-faced Leningrad Cowboys are a deadpan riot as this Eclipse set can handily attest to.