Monday, February 15, 2010

Monday's "Forgotten" Soundtrack: BANDITS by (more or less) Bandits (1997)

If the Go-Go's were the Beach Boys of post/punk all-women rock bands of the early '80s, and the Bangs/Bangles were the Byrds, it took a while for the Monkees correspondent to come along...but they did, with Katja von Garnier's 1997 film Bandits (not to be confused with the later, somewhat less good Bruce Willis vehicle). A German film, ineptly promoted upon its 1999 US release despite a glowing New York Times review by Lawrence Van Gelder and apparently grossing something like $25,000 nationally here, it was a smash in Europe, where the soundtrack album reportedly became the bestselling in European history, ahead of the Beatles' albums, or anyone else's, in that market (the first-year figure is usually given as 750,000 copies). [Late seems that Bandits in the US suffered from an internal hassle at Stratosphere Entertainment, wherein moneyman Carl Icahn pushed his esthetic partner, the one who was buying films like Bandits, out the door.] The film involves a prison band, in a women's facility rife with casual brutality from some of the staff, while some (with some overlap) pride themselves on their progressive attitudes toward reform. The quartet, with a new drummer whose first days at the prison we follow, are trotted out to a Policeman's Ball as show ponies, but they are harassed beyond tolerance by the guards on the way over, and they manage to steal the police van before they are delivered to the ball. Meanwhile, Luna, the somewhat bullying primary songwriter and guitarist of the band (played by Jasmin Tabatabai, who here is almost a dead ringer for Selma Blair, perhaps a bit more muscular), has submitted demos of their songs to various record companies, and while they are on the lam, one of the companies releases their demo recordings as an album, which does very well with the attendant publicity. Von Garnier and Uwe Wilhelm's script resembles both Thelma and Louise and The Monkees' various productions (and, of course, the Beatles' before them) in being comic with both surreal and somewhat seriously desperate edges, and the songs the band performs, or can be heard having performed at various points in the film, reflect this admirably.

Tabatabai, who would go on to collaborate musically with von Garnier on her next project, HBO's English-language feminist historical drama Iron Jawed Angels, and star in such notable productions as Unveiled, was well established as both musician and actor before coming to Bandits, as were two of the other principals, Katja Riemann (who plays the taciturn, sharp-witted Emma) and Nicolette Krebitz (who plays the essentially sweet-natured, rather insecure Angel). All three women sing on the recordings of songs they in various combinations wrote (along with a number of cover versions), but only Tabatabai plays her instrument (rather as with guitarist Roger McGuinn on the earliest Byrds' releases, or the early Monkees releases) for the soundtrack recording. However, Riemann and Krebitz were competent enough on drums and bass respectively to tour in support of the soundtrack album as Bandits.

The film begins with the audience's introduction to the prison, with a cover of "All Along the Watchtower" (it's notable that aside from a German folksong they cover, all Bandits songs are in English, even if at times definitely English as a second language, or in Tabatabai's case her third at least [she is German-Persian, and was born in Iran], though Tabatabai is probably the most comfortable with idiomatic English lyric-writing). Tabatabai reportedly, in at least one interview, wanted to use a vocal take that was more energized, and I think she's right in this, but it's still a good performance with a nice arrangement of the song:

After their escape, and before much of the rest of the events of the film, the record exec who gets lucky with the demo can be seen enjoying a little nose candy while playing one of Tabatabai's nearly-solo performances, "Another Sad Song"--while the women are enjoying, however briefly, an idyll of freedom out in the German countryside (Jutta Hoffmann, a non-musician actress, plays the band's somewhat older keyboardist and harmonica-player in the film; her character is a bit daffy to the point of slight senile delusion, but generally the most emotionally grounded of the four--even also despite a suicidal tendency):

A somewhat more punkish Tabatabai song (I'm always happy when neo-garage features some harp-playing):

One of the two singles from the soundtrack, the delightfully slinky "Puppet" (Tabatabai again, with solid vocal support from the other two):

And here's the MTV-oriented promotional video they did for this single, from a Korean site. Mixed in among the video clips is apparently some club-date performance by the touring band.

The Thelma and Louise parallels aren't limited to their initially escaping from nasty men; rather cocky yet strangely sympathetic cops pursue them, even as their music starts to become a major sensation, as they attempt to formulate a plan to get out of the country and collect enough wherewithal (including their royalties if possible) to do so, and have various encounters along the way.

Including sexual (Krebitz's primary song on the soundtrack, and one which is quite engaging when seen in context):

And, rather in the same mode Tabatabai's makeout song, and an even more engaging scene, if a bit, um, muddier:

But sex on the run can have consequences, and these women have already been dealing with a fair amount of consequences...this being one of the two most overtly feminist songs in the film, and one employing the most rude language...the next one, which features all three women trading lead vocals in a quasi-rap, also has a bit, with justice, since the bleat, a sort-of coda, "I'm your sister, and your mother!" isn't a joke at all, nor the suppressed moan of rage that follows--the first song's name is "Blinded" but the Germanophone YT poster typoed that:

Somewhat lighter in tone, but similar in spirit, are two covers--Billie Holiday and that German folksong (the latter performed first acapella in an early Cool Hand Luke-reminiscent moment, then, as one fan notes, Riot Grrl style):

More lighthearted yet, giddy even, is the song of their early days of escape, their Beatles tribute too, I suspect, again trading lead vocals:

But the sadness that has dominated their lives is never too far away, whether wistful:

or rather more elegiac (and this is Riemann's primary solo showcase, as *MILD SPOILER FOR THE FILM*

her character mourns the loss of her fetus...she was imprisoned for murdering her paramour, who chose to beat her so badly she miscarried).

*END SPOILER (the song is not a spoiler, but is more meaningful as one learns of the spoiler fact):

And all resolves with the other single from the album, "Catch Me," Bandits' slightly reworked version of British band Saint Etienne's more ethereal and dirge-like "Hobart Paving," only with the faintly suicidal morosity of the original turned into something a bit more life-affirming, if not any less world-weary (and adding at least one more layer of meaning in the use of the phrase "Catch Me")--here's the promo video for the single:

Which takes us through nearly the whole soundtrack album, except for two more versions of "Puppet," the first an essentially acoustic version featuring only Tabatabai singing lead and playing guitar and Krebitz humming in accompaniment, the second the extended chase-sequence remix (including the dialog wherein they decide on their band name)...:

...and the extended mix of "Catch Me", as presented in the film, and not quite a spoiler:

In short, an excellent album and a film which actually improves upon repeat viewings, as one sees how well put-together it is, even in its excesses. The mockery of police and recording industry types is not overdone, and the flaws in the characters of the quartet aren't glossed over. The domestic release of the video, with really inept dvd box art but also the two videos included, is still barely available, but the soundtrack is only in print, unsurprisingly so, in its import editions for we Yanks.

Since I don't own a legit copy of the latter, I'll be picking one up soon. (For regular Saturday Soundtrack items, see Rick Robinson's The Broken Bullhorn, though this meme/feature is on a brief hiatus...George Kelley and Patti Abbott (see sidebar) have joined in a bit as well...

And, just for a fillip, a slightly horizontally-stretched upload of the US trailer (it's Not an "Upbeat Thelma and Louise"...but thanks for playing.)


Richard Robinson said...

Wow! What a really great review, Todd, with a TON of music included (as you know I usually don't put in any, but maybe I need to remedy that). Thanks for the film review, I'd not heard of it, and the music. The first piece, "All Along the Watchtower" has long been a favorite song and I've heard many versions of it. This is a pretty good one I think, the playing is solid and I like the slightly laid back vocal approach and her enunciation of the key words, such as "watchtower" as a two syllables, not three. I'm going to try to track down (no pun) that version to add to the in-computer library.

Thanks also for the hat tip to my feature. The soundtrack CDs here are almost reorganized (something to do during the Olympics telecast) though I am putting in some new shelves which need work before I;ll finish. So it will be another week before I pick it back up.

Great review! Any chance of a follow-up next week?

Your soundtrack review here takes the prize for analysis and inclusion of examples.

George said...

Todd, you are The Man! When you write a review, it's encyclopedic! Very impressive! You should do these music reviews more often.

C. Margery Kempe said...


Hey, there are used soundtrack CDs on Amazon for <$5.

You need to write more mad reviews like this :-)

Richard Robinson said...

Yeah, Todd. Good job. Thanks. All that stuff.

In truth, you did a great job and I do hope you continue with the occasional music - soundtrack review!

Todd Mason said...

Thanks, folks; you are too was impulsive fun, and the film is, as I (and Van Gelder) suggest, fine (in ways that such seemingly comparable fare as ...THE FABULOUS STAINS or SATISFACTION aren't, really, despite good perfomances in the first). I'll mull it, Rick! Good luck with the continuing upgrade!

Todd Mason said...

Indeed, I like the calmness of the vocal on "Watchtower," too, but get the feeling she (and possibly I) would've like a more full-throated approach. Alternate take! Or perhaps she could record a similar orchestration on one of her solo albums...

Kristina Johnsen said...

I saw the movie in the theater, bought the CD in Europe and own the DVD of the film. But my memory of the movie is next to nil (not just for this movie, it's all movies, whether I like them or not). After reading this, I am going to pop that in the DVD player for another look. I enjoyed the reviews. Thank you for that.

Todd Mason said...

You're quite welcome, and thanks for your comment. Despite an offhanded mention by Van Gelder, it took until thinking about it here for me to realize how much the actor playing the American, West (nudge, nudge), in the film resembles a taller Brad Pitt...hence a very knowing echo of THELMA AND LOUISE.

The US dvd, at least, includes a good commentary by von Garnier and the two promo videos for "Puppet" and "Catch Me."