Genghis Blues Movie Review
Here's the premise: Filmmakers accompany a blind blues musician to the small country of Tuva, just north of Mongolia, to participate in the 1995 throat-singing symposium in Kyzyl. My roommate passionately rhapsodized over it for days, yet nothing about this premise connected with me. "Lemme tell you something, pal -- I'd rather watch mute nuns performing The Sound of Music than watch these guys do their... their... their crazy throat-singing ritual!"
Just goes to show, you can't judge a book by its cover. Boy, did I feel silly when I actually sat down to watch Genghis Blues, one of the more exhilarating and passionate documentaries about music and culture to appear in recent years. Who would have thought I'd actually love this music and want to learn more about it?
There are too many layers of Genghis Blues to discuss within the context of a review. And unfortunately, the act of describing the adventures of our filmmaking team and their companion, Paul Pena (blind, mouthy, and sharp as a whip) might strike readers as, well, boring.
Who would think that you could get excited about these characters packing for their long trip east, riding in planes, buses, and cars for thousands of miles through the desert? Or that the history of this small country would prove exciting?
You wouldn't expect the musical performers who gather at this event to cause the average viewer (me) to sit bolt upright on the couch, mouth agape in amazement, as they sang notes which seemed like the distant rumblings of an underground cave or an impossibly beautiful wood instrument. The experience was beautiful and strange.
This is no stodgy, academic National Geographic special. The people of Tuva are lively and buoyant, pleased, and excited that the American, Pena, would take such an interest in their art of throat singing, which allows them to voice more than one note at the same time. Pena is also familiar with their vivid, colorful garb and language, long banned by the Communists.
And he's blind. He learned it all by translating from Tuvan to Russian to English, in Braille! Rocky Balboa, you're a stinking chump. You ain't nothing!
The story is inherently dramatic. This is Pena's first time in this country, whose customs he has studied so passionately. As a participant in their competition, he's under enormous pressure created by his own fear. Right before he goes on, he's in the midst of paralyzing stage fright (which multiplies itself by a thousand when he's told that he cannot perform the song he had prepared, as some of the audience would be offended).
Paul and the filmmakers also journey through the land, meeting shamans and wrestlers. They take part in a goat slaughtering ceremony and bless themselves in the water of sacred rivers. While the filmmaking is rough, sometimes choppily cut together, you can't beat the beautiful landscapes or the appreciation that shines through Pena's face. This American has found his spiritual home.
Genghis Blues doesn't make Paul into a saint. As a blind man, he's often confused and disoriented, battling bouts of self-doubt and depression. It's heartbreaking to learn that in America the farthest he can walk alone is the corner store, that he often feels alienated or misunderstood as though he were some freak. And when some of his medication runs out, they may need to cut short their trip to Tuva, so Genghis Blues, for all its fascination with exploring new sights and sounds, is not without tears.
Saddest of all, an artist like Paul Pena can only find acceptance in a foreign land that doesn't look at his craft with confusion and misunderstanding. If Genghis Blues accomplishes anything, it makes Pena's world accessible to folks like me who might not give a damn, were they not led to the stream and asked to drink.
Blue man group.