An “artificial” rock band takes Russia not quite by storm in “Colossus,” a bizarrely fascinating shaggy dog of a docu-fiction hybrid conceived by tyro writer-director Mark Hendrickson. “Spinal Tap” this isn’t, but Hendrickson’s undeniably ambitious film/music biz satire, with extended disquisitions on the art of fakery and the modern history of Russia, shows more than a few flashes of wit, intelligence and craft amid all the excess. Unwieldy in its current, two-hours-plus version, which opened with no advance warning (and little if any fest play) on a single Gotham screen July 19, the pic could find a small but enthusiastic cult with significant trimming and more visible marketing.
In what is certainly not your typical calling-card feature, the long-haired, bearded, middle-aged Hendrickson also stars as the pic’s central figure, Clark Larson, a Cockney-accented expat businessman who’s spent the last 17 years running various schemes in the post-Soviet Wild East. Pic opens with news reports of Larson’s recent death, gunned down outside a Moscow subway station, then flashes back to tell the story of Larson’s last days and his final, ill-fated project: the formation of a rock band for the sole purpose of making a documentary about said band’s entrance into the music world. What we are watching purports, in turn, to be footage from that aborted project, as well as behind-the-scenes footage of its tumultuous production.
Larson even serves as the pic’s host/interlocutor, addressing the audience directly in a series of rambling monologues about the power of lies and deception, a la Orson Welles in “F For Fake” (an obvious template here). Larson’s favored example for a successful large-scale public fraud is none other than the Bolshevik Revolution (recounted here in digest form, with ample archival footage), a rather grandiose metaphor for what Larson hopes to achieve with his inauthentic rock band.
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“Colossus” roughly defines an “artificial” band as one conceived for the sole purpose of being exploited in a movie or TV show — something Larson repeatedly claims has never been done before, which would seem to indicate he’s never heard of the Monkees or Spinal Tap, to name just two. But Larson himself becomes a shabbily ingratiating figure, not half the smooth operator he fancies himself to be, but more of a slovenly Harold Hill nearing the end of his snake-oil days and looking for one last hurrah. Hendrickson, who isn’t a trained actor, plays the role well — not quite so well that we ever believe this is a real documentary, but effectively enough that when the character drops his Cockney accent halfway through and reveals himself to be an American, it comes as a genuine surprise.
Pic’s early scenes border on farce as Larson frantically shuffles his wife, mistress and ex-wife in order to free up his house as a filming location. He then recruits a crew made up mostly of film students and volunteers with little or no actual production experience (just as Hendrickson did in reality, to build “a certain amount of chaos” into the shoot) and assembles a band (named Colossus, natch) out of a few gigging American musicians plus a Russian vocalist (Ilya Sokolov) with a bluesy growl and lots of smoldering rock-star charisma. At which point, “Colossus” becomes something of a feature-length “Big Brother” episode, with the musicians and crew trying to live harmoniously under one not-big-enough roof, the latter complaining that the former strum their guitars into the wee morning hours.
The band itself turns out to be quite OK, jamming together well on a cover of David Byrne’s “Poison,” but lacking any coherent identity. Thus they take to the road, playing a series of comically under-attended club gigs and shopping malls— even, for unexplained reasons, a barn full of ostriches — as Larson’s dream gradually begins to wither on the vine.
Hendrickson shot “Colossus” from a partial script, leaving room for improvisation, and the movie’s loose, shapeless feel and scenes that go on far too long are the telltale signs of a filmmaker who fell so in love with his own material that he couldn’t bring himself to kill his darlings. Of the more than one dozen major characters, few outside of Larson make any lasting impression, though Sokolov fares well as the moody, self-interested frontman, and veteran Russian stage actor Valery Novikov exudes cool menace as a record company exec who wants to muscle in on Larson’s action. There’s also an attendant fascination to seeing an American indie pic shot entirely on location in Moscow and St. Petersburg.
There are other bright spots throughout, including Larson’s visit to his strung-out junkie songwriter, who’s now so far gone the best he can come up with is a tune called “Banana Party.” But “Colossus” really drags — and becomes something of a drag — in the home stretch, as the production woes mount and scene upon scene reiterates that Larson is running out of money. In yet another of the character’s monologues, Larson speaks of the “beautiful, awe-inspiring and deadly sea of ideas,” but well before it’s over, “Colossus” has run out of them, too.