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.