Imagine a Finnish Jim Jarmusch directing a no-budget remake of "The Blues Brothers." That's the feel of this 1989 cult comedy, which manages to be both deadpan and slapstick in equal doses.
The Leningrad Cowboys are a large Siberian group who play traditional polkas. They favor dark sunglasses, exaggerated Winklepicker shoes and ludicrous quiff haircuts that make Lyle Lovett look like Richie Cunningham. They sail overseas after a local record exec rejects them but advises that Americans "swallow any kind of crap."
The group arrives in New York City, bringing along a coffin containing a bassist who recently froze stiff in the cold. Quick to prey upon the Cowboys' golden talents, a promoter books them to perform at his cousin's wedding. In Mexico. He also informs them about "rock and roll," the music that Americans prefer. The group immediately buys some secondhand records and learns this new style.
They buy a giant black Cadillac (the junkyard dealer is Jarmusch himself) and hit the road for Mexico. On the way, they pass through the Deep South, playing bizarre gigs at rundown bars and clubs. Standards like "Rock & Roll Is Here to Stay," "Tequila" and "That's Alright, Mama" form the bulk of their repertoire. Their musicianship is reasonably solid, but the vocals are hopeless.
Most of the humor is provided by the band's shady manager Vladimir, who buys them onions for meals while hiding a private stockpile of beer. Igor, the village idiot from their homeland, adds some mirth as he haplessly trails the group, hoping to give them an oversized fish he caught.
"Leningrad Cowboys Go America" is short (78 minutes) and doesn't have much of an ending. Its humor is amusing rather than funny -- this is the sort of movie where you rarely laugh, but steadily smile. However, the tale has a unique, alien charm that balances its flaws.
Note to readers who shun foreign films: The band members do speak broken English, and subtitles are not required beyond the opening minutes.