Aki Kaurismaki’s “Total Balalaika Show” is the most incongruous — and inspired — crosscultural pairing since Nureyev danced with Miss Piggy. Hourlong concert docu, in which Finland’s Leningrad Cowboys trade standards with the ex-Red Army Choir, could have auds convulsing with laughter, stamping their feet and clapping their hands from Woodstock to Vladivostok.
Comedy and music webs, as well as specialized, campus and midnight-movie programmers, should delight in this surefire crowd-pleaser whose outlandish premise would have been unimaginable just a few years back.
Apart from a staged opening shot of a contract-signing, pic is a straight docu of the June 12, 1993, concert that Kaurismaki helped to initiate. Before a crowd of more than 70,000 in Helsinki’s Senate Square, the musically challenged Finnish rock band traded hot licks and bellowed dopey standards with the sometimes baffled, but always sonorous, Russian choir.
From the first note, it’s Irony Curtain all the way. A zaftig blonde, with the Cowboys’ trademark elongated-eggroll-on-a-diving-board bangs, introduces the show. Whereupon the Ruskies — over 100 strong and in dress uniform — perform “Finlandia” by Sibelius. Cowboychiks then segue into a rip-roaring rendition of “Let’s Work Together,” including deadpan “ah-woum-ah-woums” from the stentorian ex-Soviets.
Sober title cards announce each musical chestnut. “Volga Boatmen” is followed by the Turtles classic “Happy Together” featuring a serenade by a straight-faced and uniformed Russian soloist.
Another soloist does a serviceable Tom Jones imitation with “Delilah,” while lovely damsels in ornate Russian folk garb glide onstage. Other numbers: “Kalinka” (a rhythmic show-stopper), Bob Dylan’s “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” (with balalaika chorus) and “Gimme All Your Lovin’ ” (PDQ Bach-style treatment).
Kaurismaki provides the viewer with better-than-front-row seats, capturing the earnest conductor and his hard-working charges from multiple angles. Sound recording and mixing is crisp and resonant. Russians are frequently lit so their drab, olive uniforms glow red.
Stage decorations include fake palm trees, a bust of Lenin irreverently hunkered down behind the wheel of a convertible, and a full-sized red tractor that houses the Cowboys’ drummer.
Closing number is “Those Were the Days,” with Ruskie and Cowboy leads trading verses including “We’d live the life we choose/We’d fight and never lose” with their arms around each other’s shoulders.