Oren Kaplan, guitarist for Gogol Bordello, states in the documentary Gogol Bordello Non-Stop that, “Gypsy music and punk music are one in the same. It’s all rebel music.” Unfortunately, that rebel character is pretty sedate in the film, if not sly and humorous. Directed by Margarita Jimeno, Gogol Bordello Non-Stop is collection of history, interviews, and concert footage that attempts to provide insight to and explanation of the band’s mission and success. But instead of providing endless energy, the film is just an adequate portrait of a highly mythologized band. What the film fails to do is capture the same charisma and energy present at the live shows. Although there is ample footage of Gogol Bordello’s concerts and some great late-80s home video clips, the film is missing the kinetic spirit so essential to the group’s performances.
Gogol Bordello is a New York City gypsy punk band founded by Eugene Hütz in the late 90s. They are primarily known for their theatrical stage personalities and incorporation of traditional Roma folk music. The documentary Gogol Bordello Non-Stop shows the band’s progression from the intimate claustrophobic gigs at the Mehanata Bulgarian Bar to the expansive European tour venues, as well as their TV appearance on Late Night with Conan O’Brien. They’ve seemingly infiltrated mainstream culture, which the band seems both proud and wary of. The carefully cultivated image and musical lineage are essential to Gogol Bordello’s act. Raucous, offensive and at times tonic-like, the band embraces and maintains this explosive and attractive energy with an impressive stamina. Often, it’s this image that lures the spectator in. The momentum of music and bodies becomes captivating.
Unlike Pavla Fleischer’s 2006 documentary The Pied Piper of Hützovina, which chronicles Fleischer and Hütz’s trip through Eastern Europe and Russia, Gogol Bordello Non-Stop is more appealing for its complete look at the evolution of the entire band. Fleischer’s flaw was revering Hütz to the point of idolatry. Her film is unable to discover anything authentic, offering only fanatical and romantic fascination. The figure of Hütz becomes more important than the music or the narrative. In contrast, Gogol Bordello Non-Stop looks at the formation of the band, the members, and their character. Everyone’s voices and experiences are included.
The documentary is interesting enough, but the magnetism isn’t particularly special. Hütz still manages to entertain, but that infectious pulse just isn’t there. For a film that looks at the music and the heritage behind both the Roma folk tradition and the contemporary community that has embraced Gogol Bordello’s gypsy-punk synthesis, there’s no invitation for the audience. There’s information, but no participation, and whatever preconceptions are held about the gypsy music and culture’s mystique get appropriated and obscured by the band’s charisma. Ultimately, the lesson seems to be that there is something wonderfully feral about Gogol Bordello that is more important and effective to experience in person rather than through film.