January 26, 2001

Cornell Cinema: The Total Balalaika Show

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For years, the United States government wanted nothing more but to get a peek under the looming and mysterious Iron Curtain that hid the Red world of Russia from the suspicious eyes of the world. However, the world could never have been prepared fro the bizarre ensemble cast that stood poised behind the Curtain in anticipation of the greatest performance to come out of Russia since Billy Joel broke on through to the other side in the eighties.

As the great Iron Curtain parted, who could have guessed that a band of Finnish, Dr. Seuss-esque Elvis impersonators backed by the dignified Red Army Chorus in full regalia stood ready to shock and delight the world.

The Total Balalaika Show could be described as the bastard child spawned from a one-night stand of Pink Floyd’s The Wall and Live Aid, the concert that rocked the nation back in the days of Cold War and Reganomics. The film is a voyeuristic documentary of a 1994 concert featuring the wacky Leningrad Cowboys, a comical yet melodious band of Finnish rockers, and the Red Army Chorus, a stiff military company of robust, Russian folk singers.

The Cowboys can be held accountable for the pure and uninhibited oddity of The Total Balalaika Show. They don dark gray military garb, only a few degrees below Michael Jackson’s flashiness threshold, black Elvis inspired coifs that sit atop their heads like whiffs of meringue, and Tim Burton styled elf shoes that are eerily reminiscent of their hair pieces.

The visual spectacle of the Cowboys and the Chorus partnered with the bombastic, soul thumping music are what give this film its eccentric brand of charm. These unlikely bedfellows couple their extraordinary vocal and dancing talents in front of 70,000 zealous Finns in Helsinki’s Senate Square. It’s something like Monica and Bill in the Oval Office: bizarre and untraditional physical activity in a nationally historic setting.

This peculiarity not only spurts from the bizarre visual content, but gushes from the odd menagerie of songs performed by the outlandish troupe. The exhibition begins with the Sibelius ode “Finlandia” bellowed through the stone carved square by the large assembly of former communists as their elfin friends prance about the massive stage. Surely, it brought a tear to the eye of every good, banner waving Finn in the crowd.

The crazy Cowboys then join in with a ruckus rendition of “Happy Together” that would solicit a giggle out of Lenin, himself. Next, to calm everyone down a bit without taking any of the happy bounce out of the crowd’s synchronized bubbliness, they gently transit into the Tom Jones favorite “Delilah”.

But with a party like this, who wants to be calm or sane? Certainly not this team of movers and shakers. So, logically, the next entree on this menu of insanity is “Orchi Chornye” and “Sweet Home Alabama.” It’s the perfect party mix.

The unusual nature of the show paired with the quality of the performance could account for the prickly electrical current that runs like a live wire from the stage to the crowd and straight off the screen and into the gapping mouths of the unsuspecting audience. Never did any self-respecting American party animal believe that the former Marxists could head bang with the best of them.

This may not be the number one date movie of the year, or the number one anything movie of the year, but it may be an interesting travel movie for those of you with an empty wallet and a thirst for outlandish entertainment. This film is a definite must for anyone who considers themselves a connoisseur of rare and unusual musical genres, events, or groups. In any case, it’s a great conversational piece that may add depth to a bland bank of discussion topics on a blind date.

Archived article by Laura Thomas