Leningrad Cowboys Go America

There’s nothing dreary about Leningrad Cowboys Go America, from Finland’s heralded young filmmaker, Aki Kaurismaki. This 33-year-old director has a sardonic viewpoint and a very funny way of expressing it; life in his movies has a despairing hilarity about it. Even his tragedies are loopy.

Leningrad Cowboys is the first Kaurismaki to get a wide release. In some ways, this is too bad, because it’s the slightest of his films I’ve seen. There’s really only one joke in the movie, repeated in variations: a Finnish band wants to hit the big time in the United States.

Dressed in idiotic pointed boots and matching pompadours, they storm the backwaters of America, phonetically singing rock songs (“Born to Be Wild” is milked for all it’s worth). The first few times we see this, it’s funny, and Kaurismaki’s eye for absurdity is clear. The movie is laced with wordless, nutty blackouts. But it gets a bit repetitious after a while.

Here’s hoping this prolific moviemaker gets the exposure he deserves. He’s going to make some sensational films in the next decade.

First published in The Herald, April 6, 1991

This mini-review was part of a three-film article, the other two being brief reviews of 1990 releases, Gianni Amelio’s Open Doors and Vitali Kanevsky’s Freeze – Die – Come to Life. My reference to “dreary” comes from the end of the previous review. I saw this movie at the 1990 New York Film Festival, the first time I went to NYFF in a decade of covering it for Film Comment. Aki K. was a guest of the festival more than once, and his blasé post-film appearances onstage – usually waving around a cigarette and a beer bottle – were delicious exercises in Nordic irony. He did go on to make good movies, although the Leningrad Cowboys were something of an indulgence – or maybe you have to be Finnish.

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