Moving from Cuba to the western German city of Cologne (via Los Angeles and “The Million Dollar Hotel”), Wim Wenders has followed his genre-defining docu “Buena Vista Social Club” with “Ode to Cologne: A Rock ‘n’ Roll Film,” profile of veteran Teuton rocker Wolfgang Niedecken and BAP, the constantly shifting band he’s fronted for a quarter century. While similar in tone and style to the breakout music film about seductive Cuban rhythms, new pic is naturally much more specialized. Though it looks and sounds grand on the bigscreen, narrow appeal of subject largely suggests fest attention, with some arthouse action possible on the strength of helmer’s name, and a rosy future looming in ancillary.
Niedecken sings and plays a jangly, anthemic, generally uncluttered and often confessional brand of rock music, much in the spirit of acknowledged heroes the Kinks, Bruce Springsteen, Eric Burdon and, of course, Bob Dylan. What separates singer from the pack, however, is his insistence on writing and performing in the regional “Koelsch” dialect of his hometown Cologne area. Lingo is largely impenetrable to everyone — even Germans — who don’t hail from there.
It also makes for some interesting interpretations: For instance, that line from Dylan’s “My Back Pages,” the immediately recognizable “I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now,” becomes, after translation and English subtitling, “That’s when I was a much older man, a lot happened since then.”
In fact, the docu’s original German title, “Viel passiert,” translates literally as “Much Happened” — which, in itself, is a pretty good description of the constant touring, recording (16 albums and counting) and causes with which Niedecken has aligned himself over the years.
Pic’s central conceit finds the troubadour wandering into Essen’s vintage Lichtburg moviehouse and falling asleep in the balcony. Pic segues into a mix of contempo concert footage and clips from past shows, supplemented by shots of various BAP lineups backstage and on the road.
Whimsical and nearly wordless subplots follow hardtop’s projectionist (Joachim Krol) and mournful concession babe Marie Baumer. All or part of 26 songs are performed, high point of which may be shots from some half-dozen live performances stitched together to form a definitive version of the band’s first big hit, the 1981 “Verdamp lang her” (“Damn Long Time”).
As usual for a Wenders work, tech credits are stylishly sumptuous. The Edward Hopper-inspired motif derives not only from helmer’s exquisite taste but also from the artwork used on BAP’s 1999 CD “Tonfilm” (“Sound Film”). Steadicam operators Joerg Widmer and Jan Kerhart bring a sinewy, hip-high veracity to cinematographer Phedon Papamichael’s rich yet muted color palette, while the sound mix is impressively muscular.
Pic’s English-lingo title is ill-advised, and a howlingly bad pun to boot; maybe that’s why it wasn’t burned on print caught. Far better would be the aforementioned “Much Happened.” The band’s moniker, “BAP,” apparently has no deep meaning.