Gogol Bordello Non-Stop
Words by Ben Richardson

Some years back, the major megaplex chains got their grubby hands on liquor licenses, annexing off 21+ sections of their movie theaters and installing bars. Sitting in Artists’ Television Access on a Friday night, it was hard to tell why this idea wasn’t more successful. The charmingly DIY Valencia Street space had every seat filled, and between the brown-baggers and the people ferrying Red Stripes back and forth from ATA’s own bar, a convivial, buzzed excitement soon developed. The atmosphere recalled one of those magical spring afternoons, when even your high school Biology teacher got lazy, wheeled in the A/V set, and took the hour off. People kibbitzed quietly as the lights dimmed, cracking jokes, shfiting restlessly in their seats, and savoring the weekend that had only just begun.

The film on the docket was Margarita Jimeno’s Gogol Bordello Non-Stop: A Gypsy Punk Documentary, and the slightly inebriated vibe fit the bill perfectly. Gogol Bordello are a familiar name in music circles these days–I remember reading an article in Rolling Stone or Spin coaching me on how to get the Gogol Bordello “look”–but when Jimeno started filming seven years ago, they were a struggling New York band with a bizarre sound and an even more bizarre stage show.

The group is the brainchild of Ukranian immigrant Eugene Hutz, who came to America with his family in the early nineties as a refugee from the U.S.S.R. To call Hutz a force of nature seems almost to sell him short–the man is possessed by his music, endowed with an insatiable drive to be heard, and eager to include everyone he can in his Cold War-shattering sonic adventures. Informed of his Gypsy heritage late in life, Hutz perceived a natural link between the chaotic, expressive music of his forebearers and the similarly empowering qualities of punk rock, an epiphany born out of the travails of his Soviet-suffused childhood.  Arriving on New York’s Lower East Side, Hutz’s inexhaustible charisma and gleefully unhinged music soon made his dream a reality.

Jimeno’s film combines interviews with live footage in classic documentary style, presenting the band’s raucous concerts to be digested and then explained by the people that make up Gogol Bordello. Bands that incorporate both genders are old news, and there might even be some bands out there that can rival Gogol Bordello’s staggering ethnic stew, but in many ways their most interesting aspect is the way they obliterate generational lines. In his quest to introduce the world to the largely forgotten sounds of Eastern European folk music, Hutz turned to two Russian-born musicians, Sergey Ryabtsev and Yuri Lemeshev, on violin and accordion, respectively. Both well into middle-age, they provide startling and idiosyncractic take on the success they never though they’d attain.

Ryabtsev, seated at his kitchen table, talks excitedly in Russian about the liberation and joy he experiences as a participant in an ever-touring orgy of musical agitprop. He echoes Hutz’s love of individuality and atavistic expression, underscoring the unfettered, ageless appeal of  the band. Behind him, his wife looks on, her grim stoicism occluding a roiling ocean of emotion.

Accordionist Lemshev appears as a more troubled character. He is made giddy by the band’s fame, while at the same appearing hopelessly out of his depth. Quiet and introverted at the beginning, he is grinning and drunken by the end, and one wonders how he will cope with Gogol Bordello’s new found notoriety.

It is at this uneasy juncture that the film ends, leaving behind a band that has tasted fame, and wonders what to do next.  Gogol Bordello Non-Stop slots in nicely alongside other tales of immigrants with big dreams making it big on gumption and perseverance, but to distill it down to archetypal broth would be a disservice. If it does nothing else, it serves as a fine introduction to the larger-than-life character of Hutz, and the antics of his band, which must be seen to be believed. Along the way, in between the fire bucket percussion solos and zany costumes, it raises interesting questions about the power of traditional music in today’s world, and the ways that “punk rock” has been presaged by countless other small rebellions, musical and individual, against the mundane and the opressive. If that’s not enough to mull over, there’s always the inscrutable Gogol Bordello motto: “Drink Locally, Fuck Globally.”