Sometimes it takes something like watching a movie to really “get” an artist or band. This week, after watching multiple screenings of Stephen C. Mitchell’s Talihina Sky: The Story of Kings Of Leon documentary on Showtime, I think I may have finally gotten the appeal of the post-modern, southern fried, gospel tinged rock of the Followill boys.
Better late than never I reckon. The thing is, it’s still not for the reasons you might expect.
As a live band — despite their recent graduation to headlining arenas and stadiums — Kings Of Leon have yet to take that next big step which elevates them to the big leagues as a “must see” attraction on the same level as a Bruce Springsteen, U2, Radiohead or even Coldplay.
In fairness though — and based on the all-too-brief concert clips in this film — Kings Of Leon still rock convincingly enough. But outside of the big lights and production values that come when your albums begin to do the platinum business KoL’s have, there is little difference between their current use of stagecraft, and the not-quite-ready-for-prime-time band I saw open up for Bob Dylan nearly a decade ago.
With a few notable exceptions (like the gorgeous “Talihina Sky,” which closes this film on a perfectly bittersweet note of uncertainty that I’m sure was completely intentional), Kings Of Leon’s songs also still fall in the mostly very good to just above average range.
What does come through about Kings Of Leon in Talihina Sky though, is the fact that this is an extremely earnest and thoughtful, sincere and likable bunch (especially Caleb). This is a band who rose from very poor and humble beginnings to their current (if somewhat tenuous) status as perhaps the last truly great American rock and roll band.
Fan or not, Talihina Sky: The Story of Kings Of Leon is not only a film that will leave you rooting for this band to carry on — but one which will stick with you for days on end after seeing it.
The Kings Of Leon story is already well known to those who follow such things. The Followill brothers (Caleb, Jared, and Nathan), along with cousin Matthew, are the rock and roll spawn of a southern Bible Belt family led by tent revival preacher Ivan Followill. With no apologies, KoL left that Red State, Pentecostal existence behind to conquer the music world as international rock stars. Except, at least according to this uncommonly honest and unguarded rock-doc, maybe they didn’t leave it back in the church at all. Not completely, anyway.
The story of rock and roll artists coming from church backgrounds, and then going on to a life long struggle between the pleasures of the flesh and the joys of the spirit is of course nothing new — especially in the deep south. Artists ranging from Elvis and Johnny Cash, to Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard have famously fought this spiritual battle between a higher calling and the so-called “devil’s music” throughout their careers, and often in quite public fashion. In the case of Kings Of Leon front man Caleb Followill, he even aspired to follow his father’s footsteps into the pulpit from an early age.
In Mitchell’s Talihina Sky: The Story of Kings Of Leon, we see the way this inner struggle between flesh and spirit can exact a profound psychological toll, in up close and personal fashion.
This is possibly the closest thing to a “real time” story of this type ever made, and although the notoriously hard drinking Kings Of Leon aren’t a band particularly known for their musical proselytizing, this film shows they haven’t left their faith completely behind either. In Caleb’s case, this inner turmoil seems to manifest itself most dramatically when he drinks — which he does often here.
In light of recent events which have cast some question over the future of Kings Of Leon as a band, Mitchell’s film is also much more than just the latest exercise in self-aggrandizing rock-doc puffery. Taken in this context, it is actually quite the eye-opener.
Much of the film is framed against the backdrop of the annual Followill family reunion picnic, which takes place somewhere on a private patch of creekside land tucked deep inside the furthest boonies of Oklahoma. Here we see the Followill boys engaged in wholesome family activities like group prayer, pitching horseshoes, fishing for crawdads, and drinking plenty of hooch.
This is a tight knit clan of cousins, uncles, grandmas and grandpas that are also clearly quite proud of their most celebrated sons, the Followill boys of Kings Of Leon. Even so, fame is still defined by some of these folk as meaning being referenced on the game show The Price Is Right.
With a colorful cast of friends and relatives that seems to have sprung straight out of some backwoods trailer park, the Okie-authenticity of these characters is hard to miss. Good old boys like Uncle Cleo (who died of cancer shortly after this film was completed) and roadie cousin Christopher “Nacho” Followill make nighttime shots gathered around a raging campfire eerily reminiscent of a white supremacists gathering (minus the racist elements, of course).
Numerous home movies taken from the Followill boys childhood provide the clearest look at the real backstory here though. At times, these private family reels seem to be pieced together without much regard for continuity, giving the film the occasional feel of patchwork. But taken together, they tell what may be the most crucial element of the overall Kings Of Leon story.
We see Caleb and Nathan as squeaky clean church boys singing hymns for the congregation, scant years prior to their transformation into boozing, worldly rock stars. But we also learn that when their father went from preaching the gospel at revival meetings to hitting the bottle at local beer joints, it took a heavy emotional toll on the Followill boys, and on their faith.
At this point, any sheltered illusions the Followills had of a two dimensional world consisting only of saints and sinners were pretty much shattered. Caleb — remember, this is the sibling who once aspired to become a preacher himself — in particular seems to continue struggling with these lingering demons.
In one of Talihina Sky’s more telling moments, we hear Caleb say “As soon as I got a record deal…I knew I was going to hell.” There are also numerous scenes cut throughout the film of what appears to be a recent one-on-one interview between Caleb and the unseen camera man. Here, Caleb drunkenly rambles on about the band, his life and his mortality, as he proceeds to smoke and drink literally everything in sight.
We also see Caleb fighting with his bandmates in the studio, at one point mercilessly berating cousin Matthew over a guitar part, and finally being read the riot act by brother Nathan. In the very next scene, we see the band come back together in a circle of prayer, with all transgressions apparently forgiven (for the moment, anyway).
With the recent cancellation of an American tour (following Caleb’s strange outburst during a concert in Texas) putting a question mark on the band’s future, Talihina Sky places these events into a much larger context. Their current hiatus has been officially explained away as a much needed break and an opportunity for Caleb to heal up his vocal chords.
But Twitter posts from the band members themselves have done little to quiet the Caleb rehab rumors out there. What is clear in watching this film, is that this is a band who are collectively dealing with considerable issues, and that Caleb himself seems to be wrestling with a personal crisis of conscience and faith.
But what is also clear is that these are four very likable, mostly good, clean Christian boys, with four very distinct personalities. Jared is the most “rock star” of the group, Nathan is the one who is “all business, all the time,” and Matthew, as seen here anyway, seems to be the adorable goofball. Caleb, of course, is the earnest thinker who carries the weight of the world on his shoulders, which may at least partially explain his searching for the answers inside of a bottle.
Fans of this band will find that Stephen C. Mitchell’s Talihina Sky: The Story of Kings Of Leon provides at least some of these answers (not to mention some pretty great music). It is also the sort of rare, unvarnished insider look into the private lives of jet-setting rock stars — complete with warts and all — that makes you wonder what possessed the band members to sign off as executive producers for this project. Ultimately though, this is a film that makes a great argument that some rock stars are just as human as the rest of us — at least if they happen to be the Kings Of Leon anyway.
I’ll be rooting for them. Talihina Sky: The Story of Kings Of Leon is currently playing on cable television’s Showtime network. You’ll find playing times by checking for them at Sho.com.