By way of introduction, I will quote directly from my friends at Wikipedia:
Bandits is a 1997 German Road Movie and Music-Film directed by Katja von Garnier. The film stars Katja Riemann, Jasmin Tabatabai, Nicolette Krebitz and Jutta Hoffmann. Bandits was a commercial success in Germany (as a Movie and as a Music Album), but grossed less than $25,000 in the United States. Most of the soundtrack was written and performed by the actresses themselves. One outtake from the soundtrack even reached rank one in the German charts.
This may help to explain why I rarely go to the movies. Bandits is one of my favorite films of all-time and it didn’t gross enough in the States to pay for the nightly popcorn supply at the Cineplex.
I really don’t belong in the USA.
By way of further elucidation, my parents are life-long members of the San Francisco International Film Festival, and during my reckless youth we would spend hours together at the kitchen table pouring over the schedule and debating which films we were going to see each year. We usually wound up seeing a dozen or so films during the festival. Most were good, some were great and a few were awful. I distinctly remember suffering through Ulysses Gaze, a stupefying 3-hour art house bucket of crap featuring painfully slow action, monosyllabic dialogue and Harvey Keitel sleeping through his role as a complete zero that somehow won a Grand Jury Prize at Cannes. There was one sequence in the middle where the director thought it would be interesting to show a barge docking at a river port. It seemed like the perfect time for a break, so I left the theatre, took a piss, went outside to have a cigarette and picked up some popcorn and a Diet Coke at the concession stand.
When I came back to my seat twenty minutes later, that fucking barge was still on the fucking screen.
On the plus side, SFIFF is where I was first introduced to Roberto Begnini and Pedro Almodovar and where I learned that Iranians had many more interests than flooding the streets to bitch about Americans. It’s also where I first saw Bandits. Here’s the set-up:
As part of socio-professional reintegration in a German prison, four women form a band named Bandits. Drummer Emma Moor, a former member of a Jazz group, was abused by the bandleader and shot him. Angelika Angel Kleinschmidt is imprisoned for marriage fraud, she plays the bass. Singer and guitarist Ludmilla Luna Nabiba was arrested for aggravated robbery. Marie Irrgang poisoned her husband, is schizoid and suicidal, she plays the piano.
On the way to a a performance at a prom the band manages to escape from custody. On their way towards Hamburg they hear one of their own songs on the radio, which they sent to record produver Michael Gold. Due to the media attention the Bandits gained, Gold senses profitable business. The four women trick him into paying them without signing the contract he offers, financially securing their escape.
The remarkable aspect of Bandits (in case you missed it in the Wikipedia insert) is that the actresses played most of the music, with the incredibly talented Jasmin Tabatabai shouldering most of the lead vocal and composition duties. And since I’m a music critic, not a film critic, the question before the judge is how the ladies fared in their maiden and only musical venture.
Amazingly well! Bandits is a great movie and the soundtrack is one of my all-time favorite records, a mix of pop, rock and semi-showtune with remarkable range and depth. The soundtrack CD consists of eleven core songs plus six tracks lifted from the film, including the band’s version of “All Along the Watchtower.” In the interests of blog space, we’ll skip the extra tracks and focus on the core.
“Puppet” opens the CD, a sassy mid-tempo rocker with crunchy guitar and bass about a relationship turned rotten. Jasmin’s lead vocal is appropriately piqued and backed up with spicy harmonies. The lyrics will resonate with any female that has had to deal with an arrogant male lover with his head stuck firmly up his ass:
What is that look upon your face?
A simple mood, or have I fallen from grace?
Don’t you tell me nothing is wrong,
For just how long should this be going on?
Is the sky too grey? Did your milk taste bad today?
Did I fail in bed? Was it something I have said, was it something I have said?
“If I Were God,” is a song from one of my favorite scenes in the movie, where Katja von Garnier made the controversial decision to film certain sequences in music video style. The vocal and background are both heavy on the fx, creating a low-fi melodic punk sound that just kicks ass. “Crystal Cowboy” is a slow, sleazy, seductive number featuring Nicollete Krebitz on vocals in a performance reminiscent of Marilyn Monroe. In only three songs, these actress-musicians have demonstrated that they have more musical talent and diversity than many of the no-talent losers who grace the top of the charts today.
They outdo themselves in the central song of both the album and the movie, “Catch Me.” The CD features two versions of the song: the basic track and the longer version from the end of the movie, where the opening drums gather the nearby townspeople to an impromptu outdoor concert on the harbor. I don’t know of any other record where I can hear a song once and then wait in high anticipation for the same song to come up again later on the track list. “Catch Me” is a lyrical gem with marvelously dramatic music and a superb arrangement featuring one of the most memorable and motivating drum passages I’ve ever heard. The song has so many wonderful lines (“Rain falls like Elvis’ tears” and “Hanging around with hairdos like mine” are two favorites) that I was tempted to quote the entire set of lyrics. But really, given its cinematic foundation, I think it’s better if you see it for yourself.
After that orgasmic experience, I could use either a cigarette or a change of pace. The next song provides the latter in the form of the acoustic Latin-tinged number, “Another Sad Song,” featuring a wonderfully expressive performance by Jasmin Tabatabai. She’s equally in command of her vocal delivery on the mid-tempo rocker, “Blinded,” supported by sweet harmony and more energetic drumming. “Like It” depicts sweet seduction with a low-key background heightened by hints of vocal and tremolo-heavy guitar touches.
We get to see more of the band’s versatility with fascinating song “Shadows.” Combining a vocal that’s an airier version of Peggy Lee singing “Fever” with a Santana-like tempo accentuated by multiple guitar effects, the song would serve as perfect background music for the next-to-last bourbon-and-water before closing time. The lyrics, though, run counter to the feel of the song, giving it a heightened sense of irony:
Moon in shadows, hiding faces, in a blue-eyed dead-end-night
Broken dreams and colded (not a typo) heartbeats standing tender by my side
Light is fading into darkness, time to kiss your soul good night
Waiting for the everlasting, god almighty golden light
Where the sun burns, I will be there, once upon in former time
All the laughter, all the fighting, seem to be a part of mine
“Time is Now” shifts to heavier rock in sync with the strong sexual and violent imagery in the lyrics. Given my preference for the sexual, my favorite verse has to do with the choice between really going for it or holding back: “When you fuck it do you suck it to get all of it?” Get down, girl! The organ (no pun intended) in this song really adds to the edgy darkness of the piece when paired with the screechy power chords. It’s followed by the lighter sounds of “Photograph,” a dual vocal with alluring interplay that’s thematically reminiscent of Ray Davies’ thoughts on photography on the Village Green album.
The baseline recording then ends with the film version of “Catch Me,” which, as I said before, is anything but a rip-off. The additional tracks have a passing interest if you’ve seen the movie, but none outshine the core tracks. The acoustic version of “Puppet” is probably the best, since it’s such a strong song in the first place.
In the end, the Bandits soundtrack is a one-of-a-kind experience delivered with passion and professionalism by a group of extraordinarily talented women. Unlike too many soundtracks, this is an album that can easily stand on its own. The fact that it’s attached to such a thoroughly entertaining film loaded with humor, action, drama, depth and great music gives it a special place in music history, regardless of what my fellow Americans think.
When they think at all.