SIFF “Face The Music” Preview: Brooklyn Brothers Beat The Best

Brooklyn Brothers Beat The Best
Directed by Ryan O’Nan
(USA, 2011, 97 minutes)

Festival Screenings:
Friday, June 1, 9:30 p.m. at the Harvard Exit
Saturday june 2, 4:00 p.m. at Pacific Place

There are jokes here about dogs biting penises. There are situations involving punching developmentally disabled children in the face. There’s an encouragement of behaving like a fifteen year old boy to make music when you look old enough to be someone’s dad. There’s a main character who lies and cheats and steals and is still loved. And yet the audience I saw The Brooklyn Brothers Beat The Best with seemed to enjoy this black humor and awkward emotional honesty, which is a huge credit to the performances and the sweet spirit in which the movie was made.

People asked afterwards, “Is director Ryan O’Nan actually a musician? Is this a vanity project?” (That might be my first question were I to interview him.) O’Nan plays most of the songs in the film, save for a short cameo by a performing uke-happy “song-doodler” Katie Costello. But this is actually a fictional story, and O’Nan’s own excellent acting and investment in its dialogue with a music fandom audience sort of blurs what is story and what is real ambition. For example, his music is OK, unlike the original songs of a lot of movies about an “aging, indie musician.”

But they’re made a lot better by the accompaniment from the mesmerizing sociopath toy instrument whiz player played by Michael Weston, who is going to start getting some ace roles for weird hard-asses once this gets seen by other filmmakers. You are never sure what he’s going to punch or kiss next, and his gaze is so intense it’s amazing that O’Nan’s character can put up the fight he does before he gets roped into doing a cross country tour as a two-piece. But both are strong actors -- O’Nan was in Freelancer and the American version of Skins -- though the film wouldn’t be nearly so good without Weston.

The Brooklyn Brothers Beat The Best starts off in a tiny Brooklyn nightclub with O’Nan performing some of his most dire catchy mope-folk just before his (previous, then) partner goes crazy with some werewolf love rave ups. For a second, it actually seems like they have a “thing” with this, but no, it’s just creative meltdown. This is witnessed by Weston, sitting by with his gimmick, a box of children’s toy instruments, waiting to go on next. He’s the only one there, and he splits frantically. Later on, O’Nan and Weston’s characters meet up in a park, after O’Nan floods the real estate office where he works due to the hilarious taunting from a co-worker (hitting him in the face with an office water bottle). And then performing another mordant set for disabled kids, he gets plastic knife-stabbed by one of them and retaliates. Just when he’s about to make up with a long-pined for ex-girlfriend (he carries her Dear John letter around with him everywhere), Weston sets on him and strong-arms him into collaboration. They write the songs in the car on the way.

And if that doesn’t seem too believable (writing an entire set of songs in a car on the way to a gig, even if it was quite a road trip), there are definitely moments in the movie that seem far-fetched. But that’s not the problem. That sort of absurdity is actually kind of charming, given the talents of the actors. Thing is, you really want to like this film because of most of the cast. But there’s another movie within the one you want -- a standard, rock group on the road movie with an utterly cliched love interest performance. (The actress is good and everything, she just seems tacked on and played out.)

In the Face The Music series at SIFF every year, it seems there’s always a fictional film or two about the “little people” in the music business, sticking to their battered dreams of “making it” against the ego-lancing and spirit-torching reality many small-time musicians share. Like last year’s Roadie, this year’s Brooklyn Brothers Beat The Best has laughs, poignant-enough insights about making art in the fart-tunnel of disrespect and audience neglect, and some dark, sexy energy.

But it’s actually the opposite kind of movie at heart. Roadie was about coming to terms with not making it, and how we lie about it to ourselves and others -- how many people get close to others who are famous and let their real destinies dissolve. Brooklyn Brothers Beat The Rest isn’t about music business movers, but musicians taken for granted by life and how they relentlessly try to ride their creativity into real adventure. They’re placing their own dreams first, simply because there’s no more ways to fail.

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