Leningrad Cowboys Go America (1989)

Dir. Aki Kaurismaki. Starring Matti Pellonpaa and a whole bunch of guys with equally Finnish names 

There are more brilliant gags in Leningrad Cowboys Go America than this one, but the moment I knew I was watching the funniest thing in the entire world comes about halfway through. The band is all in the car, and the question that we’ve all been wondering about since Jim Jarmusch sold them that car (other than “Wait, was that Jim Jarmusch?”) is how they’re paying to drive from New York to Memphis, to Natchez, to Galveston. Vladimir (Pellonpaa) has been drinking an epic amount of Budweiser this entire time, absolutely befuddling the Cowboys, but there has not been much else to eat. The cry goes up in the back of the car one day: “Food. Fooood. Fooooood.” The Cowboys are not known for their English; on the plane over, one of them decides to learn by counting one number at a time into the mid-200s. It only makes sense that when they are hungry, they will not ask to pull the car over at a McDonald’s, or petition lugubriously, or even demand brusquely. Instead they make cow noises, and they are in the end rewarded with an onion apiece to be gobbled up outside a Southern grocery, squabbling over each one among themselves. Leningrad Cowboys Go America is absurd, but it works on an infallible sort of logic; as soon as you accept ten Soviet polka-playing rockers on a road trip through a rural America festooned with rust, then one’s brain melts and it all makes sense.

It’s all amplified by the quiffs and the matching shoes, which somehow never stop being funny, because as soon as you’re about to get used to them it strikes you that if you planked the Cowboys all in a row they would be human staples, or you think about how their hair is like the hats the maintenance guys from Brazil wear, or you imagine how if they turned mosquitoes into shoes they would look an awful lot like the footwear these guys have. The devotion these guys hold for their style is equaled only by the love the Heaven’s Gate people had for their Nike Decades. Even the dog has a quiff, and it turns out that this family trait has a long history. Before Vladimir takes the gents to America, the family patriarch warns them of what might happen there. Grandpa went there, he said, and no one ever heard from him again:

Of course, only one person ever draws attention to the coiffure de guerre these guys have, and that’s the village idiot (Kari Vaananen) who leaves the village to be the Cowboys’ sole groupie. He has a haircut mostly defined by its bristles, though in the back he has a little cowpie of hair and in the front he has what he tries to make a cowlick. None of the Cowboys are impressed with him, and what’s better is that no one is impressed with the Cowboys.

After failing to grab a contract in their homeland, Vladimir is told to take his troupe of indeterminate number to America, where they will buy anything. (Vladimir is a little wary of his band’s propensity to alienate even once they hit the New World. When he’s told that his band will have to audition before they can play somewhere like Madison Square Garden, Vladimir asks, “You can’t help it?”) After playing a raucous polka for the American agent, the Yank tells them to go to Mexico. We play rock ‘n roll here, he tells Vladimir, though heaven knows that what the Cowboys have going on is so much more fun than your average rock act from the late ’80s. Later Cowboys performances will borrow more heavily from American rock, from Elvis to Steppenwolf, and very few of them are as fun as this “Sakkijarven Polka.” The lads will play in half the unpopulated bars in the Deep South, receiving the profane condemnation of half the trucker hat type before finally finding their niche: Mexican weddings.

The polka they audition with sets the tone for the remainder of their performances. Someone will always have a cigarette in his mouth. Most of the band is basically stoic, especially the ones playing some kind of guitar. The drummer is so cool that he has fooled himself into believing he is as bald as Bruce Willis. One of the horn players is chunky but occasionally sings and dances with a leadfooted joie de vivre. The accordion player doubles as the keyboardist, and he is the most cheerful person in the entire world. When he is happy, I am happy, and when he is sad I am sad. The polka begins with him bobbing his head, mouth open wide, eyes rolling back into his head with sheer elation. (Later on, the Cowboys send him off with some cash and directions to get food. He returns wearing a suit that would make Haven Hamilton’s eyeballs fall out of his head. The title card which follows is Chaplinesque in its simplicity: “They beat him badly.”) Throughout Vladimir casts suspicious glances at the American agent, who has the same look of disinterested disbelief on his face that his Soviet peer wore.

Kaurismaki shows his gift for visual austerity in this scene as well, as funny as it is. I adore the shot thirty-eight seconds into the video above where we see the whole scene unfolding from a distance, the relatively small amount of space that the many Cowboys take up, how far away Vladimir and the American are standing, the dim, slightly damp look of the performance space. Before coming to America, they rehearsed in a barn, and where they are now is barely a step up from the birch wood; unseen in this shot, incidentally, is their guitarist who is frozen solid and travels with them in a coffin which has holes for his hair, his shoes, and his guitar. The light falls on them, and we pretend that it’s a single overhead lamp that lights the group, even though the anatine shadow of the guy playing soprano sax gives the lie to it. That austerity has popped up before in “Siberia.” and it will happen later as they move further south.

As ridiculous as the Leningrad Cowboys are (“He’s a Leningrad Cowboy/Raising cattle on the steppes!”), they are an unpretentious group. They’re surrounded throughout the film by Kaurismaki’s essentially unpretentious vision, and it’s that perfect sense that nothing is unusual that makes the entire film so endearing. It’s a sympathetic vision as well, for the people who aren’t there for a better punchline seem to be good ones. A performance of “Tequila” in one bar gets everybody up on their feet and dancing, for example. At one point, the Cowboys themselves show their goodhearted nature. Even when there isn’t enough food to go around, they buy something for a stray puppy who gratefully takes what they give him. And even if it turns out that Pekke the guitarist can be thawed with a hairdryer after having been toted across the world in his box, they still manage to put on a terrific funeral procession that swells in number as they march.

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