SIFF 2014 Review: Big In Japan

Big In Japan
(Directed by John Jeffcoat, USA/Japan, 2013, 100 minutes)

Festival showings:
Thursday, June 5, 7:00 PM, Egyptian
Saturday, June 7, 12:30 PM, SIFF Cinema Uptown

Art is tricky business, and usually it takes a whole lot of hard work and a huge sense of humor to match whatever beauty and truth is created by the artist. Even in the realm of aspirational underground pop music, where a casual yet liberated sense of fun is often the main goal, everyday humiliations and loyalties can mean everything.

Tennis Pro has been in the Seattle music scene for a while, beloved by power pop fanatics and teenage bedroom symphony acolytes, but have never quite gotten their due. Or anywhere close to it considering their formidable talents: Phillip A. Peterson is the (marvelous) bass player, but his melodies arrangements and sweet melodies would have gotten him a dozen or so one hit wonders back in the late 60s or early 70s. David Drury is a terrific guitar player and a playfully salty presence with his fetching everyman co-lead vocals. And Sean Lowry is as sexy and sassy with the beat as Martin Chambers was in the early days of The Pretenders.

“Big In Japan” is a phrase that’s often used as a ruse. The fellow scene-maker you’re drinking with at The Comet or Linda’s may or may not have heard your band a few times on KEXP, but you can assure them you have quite a following in American pop culture-obsessed Tokyo, where you go over to play regularly and actually “move some units.” Sometimes this is true: Bremerton-bred MXPX were pretty big here in the States when I wrote their bios and coordinated their mastering for them while I worked at their label; but they were a genuine phenomenon in Japan, and the reports we heard about their tours and sales there were almost unbelievable. Like with any hustle, therein lies something that actually happened at least once.

The movie Big In Japan is about Tennis Pro, but is also not about Tennis Pro. It is a constructed narrative about a real band with a real mission to move to Tokyo to play out street level and build a following in the ground games of club shows. The characters, even though Sean is really a hairdresser in Seattle and David actually was a card counter for a long while (both as portrayed in the film), are composites for hilarious and dramatic effect. However, the emotional apex of the movie hinges on a horrible choice the band must make that once actually involved Phillip A. Peterson in the role he plays: An A&R hack in Japan entices the band to get finally signed to his label, after so many years they’ve played and recorded and not gotten very far, but it would be at the expense of Phil. It’s in this decision that the true meaning of the film comes out and answers its most important question, according to filmmaker Jeff Jeffcoat: What does it mean to be big? What is success?

Jeffcoat (Outsourced, superb cinematography for Her Aim Is True from last year’s SIFF) makes you care about these characters who may or may not “succeed” in common or self-defined ways. He does this with an outstanding sweet low-level hilarity, in dialogue and situations that become hysterical about mid-way through the film, putting Big In Japan up there with some of the all time great rock and roll movies. Tennis Pro may not have lofty experimental goals artistically, but the film about them is genius. It looks like millions and millions of bucks on a budget I assume was made for far less. It’s frankly as gorgeous as its verisimilitude in band suffering rings true. There are a lot of Face The Music movies about hitting it and perhaps missing it, but none of them have the visual and audio ambition Big In Japan has: It looks and sounds like an absolute winner. You can get lost in its (sometimes stoic) adoration of everyday Japanese culture for many repeated viewings. Scenes of partying in punk bars, sleeping in pod-motels, hanging with the lovable riff-raff downtown, etc., all of it really enjoyable and instructive as the weirdness turns Tennis Pro, um, Pro.

The music lives up to the visual dynamics as well — classic tracks from the band’s Shimokita Is Dead? album gets loving and energetic resuscitation from its 2010 release; a snappy, gnarly cover of 60s Australian “Giggle Eyed Goo” is lovingly bashed out; and fresh, keen, emotionally careening originals like “The Man Who Fell Into The Rising Sun” contribute to the outstanding 42-track original soundtrack available on-line with the film’s release to theaters.

It all starts when Alex Vincent, drummer for iconic PNW band Green River (for reals) “discovers” them after a not-well-attended-night at a Seattle venue and strangely coaxes them through coaching and abuse to leave America and “make it in Japan.” Vincent himself parties weird with and around Tennis Pro as they go through the surreal, Monkees-”Head” like motions of playing unplugged in a Tokyo public park, and other funny scenes. But when an earthquake hits, and he tries to usher them back to the States, the destruction inspires Peterson to borrow a young girl’s cello and make the rest of the band realize they’re not going anywhere, despite the damage it may cause to pursue their dream. Vincent makes the wise decision; the band hunkers down and continues to dream amidst the rubble and the chaos.

This is a Don’t Miss premiere night film of the Face The Music festival at this year’s SIFF; not only will it look and sound superb at the newly refurbished Egyptian on its opening screening (6/5), the band immediately plays up the street afterwards at Chop Suey with the strings and horns often reserved for their own studio recordings. (Also on the bill are Fault Lines and Hearts Are Thugs.) And if you miss that, Tennis Pro are still big enough in our hearts to be rocking the Capitol Hill Block Party this year too.

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