Anton Sukharev invites YOU to take a hallucinogenic journey through some kind of jazzy hellish cityscape!
We see this world through the saxophonist’s eyes. When we first wake up, we’re on a boat, and we’re about to play to a bunch of graduates. But we’re also getting headbutted in a dark alleyway. And at the same time, we’re getting interrogated on a moving desk, and seeing the city while riding a boat on rails. Meanwhile, a drunkard is asking us to help him serenade his ex, and we’re getting invited at gunpoint to a silent disco. There a man is painstakingly disassembling a statue, while the ouroboros is projected on the wall. On an endless bus journey a man yearns for a cigarette, and a bunch of women sit on a roof, wearing wedding dresses and fishing for men.
On a frozen lake a shapeshifter wearing a dog mask sits next to a broken drum kit, tormenting a writhing jazz musician with riddles and other vague disconnected phrases. One thing sticks out: “Rhythm comes first. Melody comes second.”
Rhythm comes first, and this is certainly a film that dances to its own beat. In its structure it might be compared to a sprawling free jazz improvisation. It skitters all over the place, but it’s anchored by certain themes and motifs. And the closer you pay attention – the deeper your immersion – the more threads you’ll find to follow. There are melodies here, if you know where to look.
Ceaseless skronk jazz soundtrack, inky black and white visuals, a non-linear structure, intentionally-obtuse dialogue and repeated close-ups of goats: on the surface this plays like a self-parody of “art-house”. Indeed, anyone who professes to detest “arty foreign films” would probably feel vindicated by this.
Personally, I’m reminded of two things. The idea of a musician wandering the streets of an Eastern European city, trying to play for whoever asks him to play, is like something straight from a Kazuo Ishiguro story. I’ve always wanted to see an adaptation of The Unconsoled, and this is quite probably the closest thing I’ve seen so far.
But apart from that: Remember in the early days of Film4, when the channel had no adverts, and you’d stay up late to watch Taxi Driver or something? You’d keep watching afterwards, and a strange film from afar would quietly start, almost wholly unannounced. In these pre-internet days you can’t look anything up, and we’re still in the age of VHS, so unless you’ve a blank tape to hand you know that this is quite likely the only chance you’ll ever get to see this thing.
At the time it’ll feel like you’re the only person on the planet watching. Afterwards you’ll feel like the only person who ever saw it. You didn’t catch the name, and you were tired, so you weren’t able to see the whole thing through. You’ll spend the next few decades struggling to remember. Late nights, chatting with friends in person or online, you’ll go through your list of half-remembered motifs. “There was a goat. And a bunch of brides on the roof. And a guy on the ice who kept changing shape. Oh! And a boat on rails…”
Blank looks. Nobody will remember. And in a way you’re glad. Nothing will ever live up to the strange images in your head. Reflecting on them brings you back to a time when the world still felt new – unfathomably exciting with vast swathes still waiting to be explored. Back then, when all answers weren’t immediately forthcoming, there were still joys to be had in the unknowable and the unsolvable.
I like Backstage Jazz Mystery on its own terms. But more than that, I like it because it reminds me of those early days of discovery – when you’d see something that didn’t make sense, and you liked it that way. At the time of writing the film doesn’t even have its own IMDb page. It’s wonderful.
But if you really want to make sense of just what the hell is going on here, all you have to do is stick around for the end credits. The moment you see the names of some of the characters, everything should click quite neatly into place. You might even feel stupid for not having seen it before. I certainly did.
Yes, Backstage Jazz Mystery is a fresh improvisation on a well-worn, ancient tale. It works. It’s enthralling. It’s fascinating. But a part of me wishes that the film hadn’t been so quick to show its hand. I like the idea that some things are still unknowable.