Country roads, but far from home: “Leningrad Cowboys Go America” by Aki Kaurismaki

COUNTRY: FINLAND                                     “Somewhere in the tundra…” “In no man’s land” begins a movie by Aki Kaurismaki and its road trip into the infamous American dream. “Leningrad Cowboys Go America” is a comedy of situation motion picture from 1989. that shows the contrast between eastern and western life, dives deep into the absurd and explains the journey of different directions and spheres. This movie follows an intimidating music boyband (played by the Finnish group “Sleepy Sleepers”) with exaggerated pompadour hairstyles, long black leather pointy shoes (called poulaines or crakowes), folklore melody, and modern sound of rock and roll(s) on the way to start their promising career.


The theme of the road trip, the motif of the journey of self-discovery and character development followed by the mission travel experience through the United States is by now a well-known cinematographic path. Camera shots of American highways and byways, gas stations and deserted lands are beautifully portrayed in movies such as “Paris, Texas” by Wim Wenders or Gus Van Sant’s picture “My Own Private Idaho” and Terrence Malick’s masterpiece “Badlands”.  Taking a journey as a way of escape from the world in the name of love and passion is the idea mentioned in films like Lynch’s “Wild at heart” and Stone’s “Natural born killers”. The story that describes the run from the craziness of the world to only finding crazy in yourself is already told in “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” directed by Terry Gilliam.  However, “Leningrad Cowboys Go America” by director Aki Kaurismaki brings something new to the cinematic experience with this work. This underrated but proclaimed to be cult film introduces a foreign perspective on the U.S., invites parody, ridiculousness and comedy into the screen and combines the musical genre into this film. Also, it is interesting that this film uses a style of early cinema techniques with little dialogue and some of the action is explained with help of a silent film text frame visuals technique of title cards.   This hidden gem of alternative 80’s cinema, which is produced by the Nordic film wave, plays with deadpan comical acting as an effective tool to increase the tension of action.


Aki Kaurisamaki is a famous picture director from Finland well known for his titles in yellow letters, his trusted group of Finnish actors and his minimalistic style. Through his movies, he visits the whole world and its many places where he paints the story and faith of a small man prisoned in his own class of the system and depressing career of life. Social satire and humorous realism with a thoughtful eye for detail are always present in Kaurisamaki’s films and “Leningrad Cowboys Go America” is not an exception. With the genius simplicity and heavy craziness of action even from the exposition of drama, Kaurisamaki builds something by combining (so it seems) incompatible. His artwork is a neverending journey of fighting for and against escapism.


The starting point of the journey is a Siberian homeland carried by the wind and bleakness of the cold empty place. Wooden furniture, eastern European and Russian ethno-patterned pillows and rugs, one old home furnace, as well as the deadly Siberian winter, describe the immaculate environmental contrast from the future journey they are about to take.  Rural ground, land of hay, tractors and music experience band’s first audition that was described with “no commercial potential”. With the words “Go to America, they will listen to anything there” our story begins.


The trip to the opposite side of the world starts with drums, violin, accordion, trumpet,  tuba and mandolin. With the sounds of balalaika, the band, their manager called Vladimir and their frozen dead friend who played electric guitar and is destined to see the world, cowboys start narrowing the long distance between them and a bright future from farmhouse to Manhattan. Leaving agricultural fields, wild dogs and geese the parodical process of Americanisation has begun. Men with fur coats and dark shades leave home and start learning English and practising the new sounds of America.


The first point from the International airport is the city of “Nueva York” with its heavy traffic, big buildings with shiny street lights, hotels and cafes, bars and record stores,  marketing and crowdedness. Portrayed as a city of violence and rock and roll on television, the band gets fear of unfamiliarity and the unknown there. In New York suburbs, in the music studio, good ideas for the bend and big dreams about Madison Square Garden and Yankees stadium are coming every second closer. But first: “Mexico. Go there. My cousin is getting married. Needs a band for his wedding. Here is the address.” With those words of the American manager who they have come to with the intention to make them worldwide popular, they booked their first concert.


They are on their way. In a very short team meeting, while sitting in a Slavic squat position and with awkward human interaction, that is presented throughout the whole movie, the band is introduced to their new music reform. Folk and polka melodies are now replaced with popular western rock. They are “Heading to Mexico” with their new luxury car, Cadillac bought from the actual Jim Jarmusch, which the whole band somehow managed to fit in, and with no money left in their pockets they take the path of the highway to success.


Memphis, Tennessee and the bar next to the barbershop called “Lonesome bar” let them perform. They covered the song “Rock and roll is here to stay” by Danny and the Juniors, which lyrics were  “written in response to attacks on rock and roll music by some conservative radio stations, which included the smashing of “undesirable” rock and roll records”. Director Kaurismaki very thoughtfully and comically plays with every song performed in the film and this one is no exception by presenting the new hymn for a genre that Leningrad Cowboys want to be recognised for. Also, the irony of the song is that Danny and the Juniors were never a rock band truly, their genre of music was mostly doo-wop which represents the great connection and metaphor between Leningrad Cowboys and this specific music choice. The film constantly uses popular culture references of the time to the American music industry, mentioning the biggest stars and their songs well known all over the world now.


Manager Vladimir (played by Finnish actor Matti Pellonpää) tries everything to make the band a great one, by taking them to a new continent, pushing them to learn words and phrases from English dictionaries and manuals, and booking them gigs all over the states with his immaculate talent for diplomacy so he could live life comfortably. While he is enjoying his delicious stake, a lovely dinner at “Liberty bar” hungry members of the band wait outside. Vladimir is portrayed as a group leader with a stable vision and narcissistic tendencies. His character is perfectly explained in the film sequence of the beer affair. The abundance of empty beer cans and the mystery of where Vladimir stores his beer supply is just one of the episodes that describe a silly persona with the role of the main operator. Due to his selfishness, he provokes protests and riots inside the band all along, but on the other side,  he is the only one that keeps the band together and on the right path. 


The band is going on tour all across the states, “Hudson river up and down”, and they are being followed by a guy called Igor (played by Kari Väänänen) from their village who wants to be with them. This character has its own storyline and episodes that describe the individual journey of reaching his goal.  He is constantly desperately trying to become one of the Leningrad Cowboys, even though his hair is too short to be one of them. He seems to be like a little sheep in the threatening wolf pack. He finds his way to smuggle himself to America and is very stubborn to succeed in his biggest plan. On the way, he gets sympathy from Americans who find him quite interesting and lovely so they always decide to help him. His naive look and idea from the fantasy follow the plan that seems like a great illusion. However, even though it looks impossible for this character to find his homeland peers in America like it is finding a needle in a haystack, he succeeds for a brief second in front of the “Rock a bye” club 35 miles from Los Angles. With big fish in his hand as a present dedicated to the cowboys, he is looking to unite with his friends once again but this time forever. “Sometimes… in Sunday” he will become one of them.


In the “Earl’s Bar, New Orleans, Louisiana”, in the town where is the house of rising Sun they perform their second gig performance. Bar’s guests try to enjoy surf instrumental coming from the wedding orchestra playing in their black pants, white shirts, colourful ties, exotic mullets, and domineering sunglasses. They play a hit song from the year 1958. – well-known “Tequila” by The Champs. So it seems that the band is still struggling to find their musical way.  But their path to fame takes a different turn when they, instead of a new bar to sing, find themself in state jail for a few days due to breaking the law a few times. By illegally carrying a dead non-American citizen on top of their car and holding his burial ceremony on a random street next to the Baldwin funeral home in Louisiana they are now confronted by police of New Orleans.


American dream soon turns into a nightmare. Every journey has its ups and downs. Stuck in the prison, their journey turns into a static process, spent waiting for a release. Day by day the tension in jail cells increases, and this is symbolised through music buried in every aspect of their artistic soul. They are used to the nomadic lifestyle of the Siberian homeland and this lack of liberty, freedom and movement threw them into a state of musical madness.


When released from prison, they get back on the move, but because the path to fame and fortune is not easy they come across new obstacles, one of those being hunger and money problems. With their strong unbothered and comical spirit they overcome everything and are ready to dive into serious professionalism. Following in the footsteps of Elvis Presley, “The king of Rock and Roll” and singing one of the first songs of this genre called “That’s alright (mama)” they are continuing their tour trying to figure out why the audience doesn’t like them. This band continues to try to fit into the standard of the ideal musical boyband the American industry gave birth to. Even though they are completely opposite from The Beach Boys (who “embodied the California lifestyle in the 1960s with their mellow harmonic songs about surfing, hot rods, and young love”) they try their best to succeed. In Texas, on the coast of the Galveston sea, they act on the process of Californication by catching the ten on the beach. But they cannot run from themself. The state of alienation in American cities and towns far from home continues to subconsciously haunt them.


As the ballad of the Leningrad Cowboys goes: “I’ve always been a farmer at Collective 49. Worked the black soil of Russia, growing potatoes and some wine. But I was happy driving tractors for the last 20 years, till the local commissar let my wife disappear. I’m a Leningrad cowboy, raising cattle on the steppes won’t you pour me another vodka? ‘Cause I’m drinking to forget.” Sad spirit buried inside of moving song of happy melody describes the homeland life.  A sense of homesickness and nostalgia for the old days in the Siberian field is present throughout the whole movie in different shapes and forms.


Many shots of the film capture a path and a picture shown from the car window. They were recorded from the moving perspective presenting rural and urban horizons. From the sky view of the plane to sunsets on open roads, they are also cruising down the city streets, filled with parked cars, and through polluted air coming from suburban factories. For a brief moment, this America starts to look like home when they pass by a cow farm or swamp full of dried trees. Long night dives give them hope for promising future mornings.


Next chapter. “Ladies and gentlemen, in this town there are millions of stories. This one is mine.” Downtown the city,  the club Zhivago is looking for a singer of country-style music and a cowboy from Leningrad is the best match for this position, even on the level of Kenny Rodgers. From rock rebranding to new reform connected to United States folk the band shows its diversity and virtuosity. Honky-tonk music seasoned with a pinch of communism creates a new subgenre interesting and unique performed in an almost empty bar. It turned out performance sucked so badly that Zhivago bar got closed forever.


In a film sequence called “Revolution,” their main way of transportation stopped working because someone robbed car parts of their Cadilac. When manager Vladimir proposes they continue their journey by foot or try hitch-hiking another riot occurs, and the band members take things into their own hands. Vladimir is tied up and has no right to speak, while the band buys the new car – the limousine. So it seems that the days of dictatorship are over but the new democracy is not going well eighter. Without a leader, this group enters into irrational chaos.  In “Langtry, Texas” in the deserted area, the food and help of village idiot Ivan finally arrive. Ivan also unties manager Vladimir who filled with rage kills a short moment of past freedom.  Everything goes back to the old ways and the journey continues.


“Get lost and never come back” – this is a repetitive phrase in the movie that Leningrad cowboys hear wherever they go. Their lively spirit, unusual appearance and cultural difference, even though they try to fit in, cause destruction and misunderstandings in minds of other people who are confused by them. Train of bad luck and list of lost-cause performances gave the expression that they would not receive a positive response in a long-awaited Mexico. But suddenly, things change. All of a sudden in “Espino and sons” service gas station Siberian gang recognises a familiar style and face of the worker there – they have come across the long lost relative who had fallen down into the water while fishing in Siberia. The Gulf Stream took him to Galveston, America. “It sure was peaceful drifting in the sea and you can bet it took a long time”. But now he has become the new lead singer of Leningrad Cowboys. He saves the performance in “Joe’s place, Houston, Texas” because of his American development and helps other guys face their fears of bikers and release all blockades for heavy rock. They perform to Harley Davidson fanatics a song  “Born to be wild” by Steppenwolf which is an anthem of motorcyclists and transition line to heavy metal.


They have come to the final destination – Mexico, their promised land, and managed to make it on time for the wedding. They are greeted with words: “Welcome, welcome, we have been waiting for you”! Manager Vladimir responds “Yes. That’s why we came. We are the Leningrad cowboys.” This strong and emotional scene that represents the end of the journey and describes the reached goal is beautifully directed with the serious simplicity of the situation followed by a pinch of comedy. Happy ending with everyone singing and dancing, drinking and celebrating leaves fulfilling taste followed by the miracle of resurrection.


The band “ Leningrad Cowboys” turned out to be a great success as we can see Kaurismaki made a few sequels: “Total Balalaika Show” and “Leningrad Cowboys Meet Moses”.  The last shot of the film “Leningrad Cowboys Go America” captures Vladimir smiling because he reached the goal of his mission and then him walking into the distance. The black screen arrives with the words: ”And nobody ever saw him again…Shit happens…But the band hit the Top Ten of Mexico”.


All of the adventures, fights and riots, friendships and hardships, tunes and melodies, rocks and rolls, stories and processes of an 80-minute-long program have come to the end to show that the journey is more important than the destination. The ride is a way of escape and entrance. The art of film is a neverending road trip of possibilities. We are “born to be wild”,  on the road chasing the light while listening to Mambo from Säkkijärvi.


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