Monday, May 27, 2013

Get Ready To Be Boyzvoiced: A Norwegian Interlude.

Here is a little something that was sitting on my harddrive for a while. I had submitted it to another site but they never got back to me so... in lieu of Bollywood talk, please enjoy GET READY TO BE BOYZVOICED aka the Greatest Film You've Never Seen.

“Because modernism has conquered art, kitsch is the savior of talent and devotion.” - Odd Nerdrum

In the winter of 1999, Norwegian boy band Boyzvoice’s debut single “Let Me Be Your Father Christmas” reached the number one spot on the pop charts. The song was a catchy, sleighbell-tinged slow jam dedicated to a woman who had lost her faith in Santa Claus:

Let me be your Father Christmas tonight (tonight)

Klippety-klopp, ding-dong (ding-dong merrily on high)

Feels alright

Let's make love behind the Christmas tree

Where nobody sees us

Hooray, hooray, it's the birthday of Jesus

Boyzvoice, in true boy band fashion, wasn’t a real band but were hastily assembled by Espen Eckbo and Henrik Elvestad to give a face to the song they had written. The unexpected success of the single, which stayed in the Top 20 for ten weeks, extended Boyzvoice’s expiration date and the “Boyz” - going by the stage names M’Pete, Hot Tub, and Roar - would have the chance to record an album and perform at Norway’s annual HitAwards.

This is where Get Ready To Be Boyzvoiced (2000) begins.

Everything up to this point in the story of Boyzvoice is true.

Through the course of the film, we watch as the documentary crew follows brothers M’Pete (co-writer Espen Eckbo), Hot Tub (Øyvind Thoen), and Roar (Kaare Daniel Steen) as they attempt to launch a global pop career, suffering the inevitable scandals and setbacks familiar to any view of VH1’s Behind the Music. Manager Timothy Dahle (co-writer Henrik Elvestad) starts a preteen riot at a Pop Against Drugs (“Pop Mot Dop”) charity event. The band gets pelted with frozen fish fingers at a country music festival. Hot Tub is outed. And throughout the film they are hounded by rumors that they don’t sing their own songs. But M’Pete’s determination to be a pop star by force of sheer will (amply supported with peppy Europop with vaguely inappropriate lyrics) never flags.

If that sounds ridiculous, and not just regular boy band ridiculous, it’s because Get Ready to Be Boyzvoiced isn’t a documentary but a mockumentary. The band was cooked up for as a one-off gag for satirical TV Norge program Mandagsklubben (The Monday Club) to which Eckbo and Elvestad were contributors. The pair roped in two non-actor friends to participate in the song - Øyvind Thoen, who also sang on the tune, and Kaare Daniel Steen - and that was Boyzvoice. It may not have been their first choice but Eckbo and Elvestad weren’t willing to waste a chance at a bigger budget and broader audience and swiftly hustled their way into a record deal with Universal and a NOK 3.2 million film budget from the Norsk Kulturråd (Arts Council Norway).

Boy bands are a tempting target for parody and many have tried to lampoon the construct, though few have succeeded. Most parody boy bands go too broad, attempting to further exaggerate the already exaggerated qualities of actual boy bands. How can a parody boyband be more ridiculous than One Direction not so subtly encouraging group orgy subtext - referred to by fans as OT5 - with their videos? And how could any parody costumes be funnier than the time that Backstreet Boy Kevin Richardson wore a skirt. The result is mean-spirited parodies like Blink 182’s All the Small Things video whose only purpose is to scorn the young women and gay men who make up the typical boy band audience, because (to them and most people in the culture industry) the boy band construct is stupid and valueless and so are the fans who enjoy it.

Get Ready to Be Boyzvoiced circumvents both overly broad parody and troubling sexist undertones by using a precise pastiche. Though the lyrical content of the songs has a humorously wicked twist, the music, styling, and everything else is as close to actual 2000-era boyband as the filmmakers could get it. And the lyrics are played completely straight, so the more exact the details of styling and music are, the funnier the song is. Songwriter Jens Thoresen hits the nail on head for every one, giving us songs that are as genuinely catchy as the pop hits they are mimicking. They’re in a sun speckled warehouse, the band in floor length duster coats. “How could you be so mean, told me you were sixteen. I'll never stop blaming myself, for not seeing that you only were twelve,” sings M’Pete in the Backstreet Boys-esque “12 Year Old Woman.” “What’s Happening To My Body,” a funky LFO-style song about a boy enjoying pornographic magazines, sees the boys roaming school hallways in baggy jeans, backed by a troupe of female dancers in Britney Spears schoolgirl chic. And the big single from the album, “We Are the Playmomen,” has the band acting as toy submissives to their fans, combining N*Sync’s “No Strings Attached” with a healthy dose of Aqua’s “Barbie Girl.”

Whether or not they intended it as such, Get Ready To Be Boyzvoiced turned out to be much more than a vehicle for the songs. Though it’s earned the tagline of Norway’s This Is Spinal Tap over the years, the film is actually far more subtle than Spinal Tap and much closer in tone to BBC’s The Office (2001). The writers drew much of the narrative from personal experiences in the industry and the humor in Boyzvoiced can be bleak and self-depreciating. Like David Brent in BBC’s The Office, M’Pete wears his blustering show business persona like the layer of foundation that covers his face, just barely hiding the fear underneath.

One scene, in particular, stands out. Boyzvoice are in the studio recording their new song “Hey Mister President” and they sound raw and unrehearsed. After a few half-hearted attempts to get them to sing better, the engineer (a cameo from the elder statesman of Norwegian comedy Trond Viggo Torgersen) calls in a ringer, singer Heine Totland (also in a cameo role). The engineer tells the group they can go on break and he sends Heine into the studio to record the song. While Heine is layering vocals, M’Pete in the control room getting more and more agitated. He finally asks the engineer when the group is going to return to the studio and the engineer dismisses them saying their parts are complete. M’Pete knows what is going on but he can’t do anything about it, especially with the cameras there. As M’Pete leaves, he stalks through the studio where Heine is singing and gives this look that’s part menace, part desperation, and part despair.

Though almost unknown outside of Norway (and I suspect that's the way he likes it), Espen Eckbo is a master of character on par with Sacha Baron Cohen or Dana Carvey. He made a name for himself doing sketch comedy on television with series like the Santa-themed reality show parody Nissene på låven and is currently hosting his own talk show as the utterly clueless, sweater-wearing rustic Asbjørn Brekke. In a 2010 interview, Eckbo spoke about what he learned from Trond Viggo Torgersen saying, “The personalities [of his characters] were so strong that the jokes were redundant.”

And Eckbo has carried that feeling through in his own characters, each of which he sinks into like a second skin. Boyzvoiced sees Eckbo not just as M’Pete but also as an ultra-vigilant security guard, an IT guy, country singer Waldemar Hoff, and Boyzvoice super-fan Ove (a variation on Ove has become a signature Eckbo character and recently interviewed Ke$ha on the Asbjørn Brekke-show). Waldemar Hoff and the others are one scene bits but Ove, zit-covered and with a voice forever on the verge of cracking, has a running track through the film as an earnest counterweight to M’Pete’s naked ambition.

Because the humor comes from well-drawn characters rather than the situations or witty one liners, the film not only holds up to repeated viewings, but actually improves with them. As we get to know the characters better, everything they do grows funnier - Hot Tub casually eating a pølse (a type of hot dog found in every 7/11 and gas station in Norway) on camera while M’Pete is trying to sound cool and sophisticated; M’Pete disdainfully checking the bottom of his shoes for cow shit at a country festival; Ove only being allowed to use the computer on Tuesdays and Thursdays; Timothy shoehorning his one English phrase (“What country are you from?”) into every conversation...

Unexpectedly, it’s Ove’s story that ends up resonating the most at the end of the film. Eckbo plays him with such empathy that his earnest dedication to Boyzvoice seems almost sweet. The humor in Ove comes from a sympathy with our own past awkward 14-year old selves and less from a mean mockery of a boy who loves boy bands. When Ove’s innocence is shattered, as it must be, the moment is played straight, with an honest wistfulness and regret. Show business is a mirage. Boybands are a mirage. No matter how close you get, the shining image remains forever out of reach.

Although Boyzvoiced has gained a small cult following in Australia, where it is shown annually on SBS during the run up to Eurovision, the film has otherwise remained almost unrecognized outside of Norway. And it was never expected to be seen outside of Norway, or perhaps Scandinavia, which makes Boyzvoice's desire for global recognition and fame that much more amusing. This is a nation, after all, whose proudest musical export remains a-ha, a band best known in the rest of the world as the answer to the trivia question “Who sang 1980s hit ‘Take on Me?’” (Or in the advanced edition, “Which band holds the record for longest held note in a pop song?”)

With a healthy dose of Norwegian self-depreciating humor, Get Ready To Be Boyzvoiced revels in the provinciality of Norway’s entertainment industry. Whether it’s Boyzvoice's manager Timothy Dahle congratulating them for their platinum hit before noting that in Norway a platinum hit is only 20,000 copies or a scene in which Boyzvoice's PR maven Wenche (Linn Skåber) says in an interview with the documentary crew, “It’s a very exciting job. I get to meet lots of stars.” She pauses. “Just kidding.”

And the film is packed with cameos from Norwegian musicians. Along with the aforementioned cameos from Trond Viggo Torgersen and Heine Totland, Per Kristian Indrehus from real life Norwegian boyband Drama has a short cameo as himself, riffing on the inside joke that he was the man behind “Let Me Be Your Father Christmas.” Velvety voiced a-ha singer Morten Harket even shows up to provide M’Pete’s voice in the James Bond theme “Spy Me At Noon.” But by far the biggest name in the film, at least outside of Norway’s borders, is Christian Ingebrigtsen, the sole Norwegian member of the then-popular British boyband A1. Ingebrigtsen and the rest of A1 poke a bit of fun at themselves as the genuine article to hold up against Boyzvoice’s fakery*.

In fact, though the film is overtly a mockumentary about boy bands, the real target of Eckbo and Elvestad’s skewering seems to be the Norway’s own hidden sense of cultural inferiority. It shows up in the way manager Timothy Dahle is mocked for not understanding English during an important business meeting. The sequence, which has the representative from Universal Records is telling them, in English, that he’s canceling Boyzvoice’s contract. Meanwhile Timothy, who doesn’t understand a word, is smiling and nodding like they’re getting a million dollars. “Isn’t it a little arrogant, coming here without learning the language...” says Timothy, afterwards, while the band glares at him for embarrassing them. But, really, isn’t it arrogant for Americans to expect that everybody in Norway speaks English? Another scene has M’Pete writing the lyrics for “What’s Happening to my Body?” and explaining how it’s going to be a universal song that everybody can relate to when he stops and asks the interviewer what the English word for ‘puberty’ is. On one level, it’s just funny to hear the word puberty said five or six times in a row but on another level, it’s also funny that M’Pete is writing a universal song in English for a Norwegian audience and he himself doesn’t even know what all the words mean.

It’s the sum of all these small details that make Get Ready To Be Boyzvoiced a film that’s more than the hacky boy band parody it appears to be on the surface.

In the end, Get Ready To Be Boyzvoiced simultaneously celebrates and undermines the shimmering unreality of show business. Controversial Norwegian painter Odd Nerdrum, currently in prison for tax evasion, is an outspoken proponent of “kitch,” which he defines in opposition to modern art and its never-ending quest for the original and authentic and shocking. In a speech at the Astrup Fearnley Museum of Modern Art in Oslo, 24 September 1998, Nerdrum said, “Kitsch is about the eternal human questions, the pathetic, whatever its form, about what we call the human. The task of kitsch is to create a seriousness in life, at its best so sublime it will bring the laughter to a quiet.” At his lowest moment, M’Pete is given a choice by manager Timothy Dahle. The band is out of money. Either M’Pete can give up and live in an authentic reality or he can do a commercial for fish fingers, which are, despite what Timothy says, the uncoolest of foods? M’Pete doesn’t need long to decide, show business always wins in the end.

* Which is appropriate since it seems very likely that the people who find boybands the most amusing are the men in them. Just check out how much fun N*Sync have as the drive-through themed boyband “No Refund” on Saturday Night Live. Nobody finds boybands funnier than members of boybands.

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Note from Filmi Girl:

I love Bollywood - and all the ridiculous things that happen in Bollywood - but it doesn't mean that I can't occasionally make fun of various celebrities and films.

If you don't like my sense of humor, please just move on by - Trolls are not appreciated and nasty comments will be deleted.

xoxo Filmi Girl
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