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Genghis Blues

Proving once again that music is the one universal language, "Genghis Blues" pleasantly follows a blind American bluesman as he journeys to far-flung Tuva (the republic sandwiched between Siberia and Mongolia) to share his self-taught skill in the area's ancient "throat-singing" art form.

Proving once again that music is the one universal language, “Genghis Blues” pleasantly follows a blind American bluesman as he journeys to far-flung Tuva (the republic sandwiched between Siberia and Mongolia) to share his self-taught skill in the area’s ancient “throat-singing” art form. Though a bit more self-congratulatory than necessary about this admittedly unique cross-cultural moment, pic has proven a crowd-pleaser at Sundance, Rotterdam and other fests; Roxie Releasing’s theatrical release kicks off in New York, San Francisco and L.A. in early July.

Creole-American guitarist-vocalist Pena has played with numerous famed R&B, blues and rock performers, from B.B. King to Bonnie Raitt. Discovering by chance a radio broadcast of Tuvan throat-singing — an arresting, unearthly-sounding technique that allows the performer to hit several harmonic tones at once — he became fascinated and, because of the lack of available teachers, virtually taught himself the method over several years’ course.

At last he traveled with the young filmmakers and some musician friends to Tuvan capital Kyzyl, there to meetmaster throat-singer Kungar-ol Ondar and compete in a semi-annual harmonic singing contest/symposium. The joy with which this surprising visitor is greeted is palpable — though since everyone in turn contributes some breathless v.o. narration, pic too often feels the need to tell us where it might best have simply shown us.

Glimpses of Tuvan society are limited, and the late inclusion of some serious musings on Pena’s sense of isolation as a blind man feels like an afterthought in a movie that’s otherwise rather aggressively feel-good. Still, he’s such an ingratiating character, and the circumstances here are so offbeat, that “Genghis” charms despite its uneven execution.

Sound recording is good, other tech aspects adequate in vid-to-35mm transfer.

Genghis Blues

  • Production: A Roxie Releasing presentation of a Wadi Rum production. Produced by Roko and Adrian Belic. Directed, written, edited by Roko Belic.
  • Crew: Camera (color, vid-to-35mm), Roko and Adrian Belic; additional camera, Shamiel Seden-ol; online editor, technical director, Ian M. Williamson; sound recordist, Lemon DeGeorge; audio post-production/restoration (Dolby), Jason Terrell; original concept, associate producer, Ralph Leighton. Reviewed at San Francisco Film Festival, April 30, 1999. (Also in Sundance, Rotterdam film festivals.) Running time: 88 MIN.
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