There is something nakedly revealing about singing karaoke. The activity invites singers of all stripes to tap into their inner divas even, or especially, if you really can’t hit those notes or truly master that tricky wording. Given this, karaoke often lends itself to being a liberating and rather joyful pastime, the kind of drunken escapade from one’s life that allows you to let loose. Not so (or not only so) in Einari Paakkanen’s tender ode to the practice, “Karaoke Paradise.” This Finnish documentary chronicles instead the underlying melancholy that may also be excavated in those moments when it’s just you and a song you wish to make your own.
Paakkanen opens “Karaoke Paradise” with the kind of mundane image that will make up the bulk of his film. A barn in the distance at dawn fades as the camera swivels to find an unassuming building surrounded by a welcome, verdant landscape. We may not see the people inside, but a sign and voices reveal this to be a karaoke bar. The gesture speaks to Paakkanen’s approach to his subject. He opts to begin with the ordinary. Drab even. By the time an opening montage begins to show all kinds of folks singing along to a heartbreak tune (“Even if it’s foolish, I long for you”), the music track seamlessly weaving them altogether (here an older man at a bar, there a woman on a boat, here a couple in their home), “Karaoke Paradise” dispels any preconceptions we may wish to bring to this modest proposition of a film.
For, while Paakkanen is keenly fascinated by this amateur art form, it’s soon clear he’s trying to probe something deeper. Something sadder. “There are a lot of lonely people in Finland,” we’re told late in the film, and the line feels like the emotional bedrock upon which the documentary has been carved. Most of the folks we meet and whose performances are featured throughout — in dingy bars, in makeshift karaoke stations, in garages, in hotel conference rooms — have resorted to karaoke not merely as a way to pass the time. As we spend more time with these various Finnish folks, some young, some old, some partnered, some single, we find out how karaoke has helped them cope with immense loss. Or loneliness. Or an illness. Yet the doc never becomes a maudlin endeavor. Paakkanen peppers these backstories with a chilly remove that keeps them from becoming saccharine — like when he shows a couple moving out of their home and lingers on a shot of the woman leaving behind a mostly unused stroller.
By themselves, any one of these stories — a woman suffering from Parkinson’s who loves to sing, an older gentleman who struggles when finding a lifelong partner, a mother grieving the loss of her baby daughter — could have seemed all too cloying on their own. Interwoven as they are in this spare and sparse portrait of karaoke in Finland, these character studies end up standing in for a broader interrogation into how we connect with one another. And in juxtaposing their stories, which they share candidly with the camera and in vérité moments with their friends and families, with touching performances that strip these people bare in a decidedly different way turns this somewhat unassuming, intimate documentary into a quiet take on life’s big questions. No mean feat when its subject often rouses as much scorn as it does secondhand embarrassment.
Watching “Karaoke Paradise” as a non-Finnish speaker necessarily adds another layer to the proceedings. The practice of karaoke, after all, depends very much on appropriating those lyrics in front of you and making them your own, using them as vessels to say something about yourself, about how you feel, about how you want to be seen. For the most part, though, many of the songs in the doc are in Finnish, so we’re left reading the subtitles to catch the nuances of the lyrics. Except, there are times when the film even deprives us of lyrics and music altogether, opting for montages where we just watch people singing. Some stay still. Others dance. Some are self-conscious, others command the makeshift stage with abandon. It makes the moment when the woman who runs a traveling karaoke bar sets up in a nursing home all the more poignant; the film has been building to the kind of subdued catharsis we experience there.
At once heartwarming and yet aptly chilly (the better to fit in with the wistful, misty Finnish landscapes that dot its brief runtime), “Karaoke Paradise” is not so much about that imaginary titular place. Instead, it’s a meditation on loneliness, on the fleeting if meaningful connections we aim to make with ourselves and with one another when we pick up a mic and sing from our hearts. For others, yes. But mostly just for ourselves.