Leningrad Cowboys Go America

Released in 1989 as the Soviet Union collapsed, Aki Kaurismäki’s Leningrad Cowboys Go America follows a Siberian troupe of sunglass-wearing, slick-pompadoured performers who, lured by the promise of an audience who will buy anything, decide to shoot their shot and go rocking in the free world.

The genre here – in broad terms – is comedy. Deadpan hilarity is derived from the unceasing awkwardness that flourishes in the misfit between the flamboyant Cowboys and the dull backdrop of identikit small-town America in which they perform most of their gigs. In one scene, the designated driver pins back his severe winklepickers with a hammer and nail so that he might safely pilot the band’s jetblack muscle car. Also exemplary is the image of the entire band struggling to read a small rock and roll songbook at the same time, their formation resembling that of pigeons scrambling for a stale crumb.

But this is also a comedy of genre. Kaurismäki continually short circuits our expectations of just what it is we are watching and which norms we should reach for to guide our response. Elements of political satire, slapstick comedy, and a feel-good triumph-of-the-little-guy are teased but never confirmed. At one point, a band member inexplicably rises from the dead. Just as the cowboys must continually improvise with each dive bar performance, adopting new styles, songs and accents with apparent effortlessness, so too the audience is never allowed to get comfortable in the film’s ever-shifting mode of presentation. Road films typically provide geographical footing to a gradual arc of redemption or transformation as the cast makes it from A to B, but all that accrues here is a growing heap of pleasurable chaos.

What’s resisted by the film’s ever-shifting grab-bag of stylistic cues is any clear-cut didactic punchline. While the film and the real-life band it plays host to were initially conceived as a satire about waning Soviet power in the mid-1980s, we are mostly left to wonder what – if anything – is the object of satire here. When the band’s selfish, beer-guzzling manager Vladimir – at ease in capitalist America – is mutinied mid-film, it’s tempting to read this as a commentary on the shared cruelty between individualist America and the pseudo-collectivism of the late Soviet Union. But a few scenes later, his ropes are cut loose and things return to the way they were with little protest from any of the band members. 

Both comedy and music are well-worn tools of feel-good globalism. The universal joys of laughter, singing and dancing are what supposedly remind us that we are more alike than we are led to believe by the political forces that divide us. This is doubly true in a post-Soviet context: see wet-eyed appeals to the role of techno clubs in forging a shared cultural bedrock in reunified Berlin. But such appeals to melodramatic togetherness are absent here, there is only the brave reinvention of the Cowboys with each show and the dramas of misunderstanding that unfold from their broken English. In the absence of an overt political agenda and fumbling genre cues, Kaurismäki’s film suggests that if anything unites us, it is our collective awkwardness, our shared propensity to haphazardly reach for a sense of connection even as it constantly eludes us.

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