Alone (Together) with the Music: Songs in the Films of Aki Kaurismäki

You never seem to be far from a musician in Kaurismäki-land.
Robert Barry

Aki Kaurismäki's Fallen Leaves is screening exclusively on MUBI in many countries.

Fallen Leaves (Aki Kaurismäki, 2023).

There’s a moment early in Aki Kaurismäki’s latest film, Fallen Leaves (2023), that will surely tug at the heartstrings of shy lovers everywhere. A man, Holappa (played by Jussi Vatanen), and a woman, Ansa (Alma Pöysti), sit across from each other in a bar. Between them, his friend tries vainly to flirt with hers, getting nowhere, but Holappa and Ansa themselves do not speak, and instead merely stare meekly into their drinks, the gap of a few meters opening up like a yawning chasm. 

Then, for just a moment, Holappa looks up from his beer and their eyes meet. And as they do, the first cascading piano chords of Franz Schubert’s “Serenade” are heard and a besuited man takes the karaoke stage to start singing: “Softly my songs plead / through the night for you / Down into the silent grove / Beloved, come to me!” It’s a scene that could take place in almost any of the Finnish director’s dry yet tender works, but when it happens it feels utterly singular: as if, for a brief moment, these sad-eyed, tight-lipped characters had opened their chests and given the audience a glimpse inside their hearts, without saying a single word. 

Kaurismäki is often spoken of as a director of taciturn, almost mute films, as if his work is wrapped in the same charged stillness and silence found in the films of Béla Tarr or Pedro Costa. But in fact, though they may be terse, Kaurismäki’s films are usually anything but silent. Driven by the rhythms of industrial machines, with at least as many lines sung as spoken, a picture like The Match Factory Girl (1990) could almost be considered a musical. And, often as not, the songs in Kaurismäki’s movies function much as they would in a musical: not propelling the action forward, but rather like a Greek chorus, raising it to a higher level and offering insights into the inner lives of the protagonists. 

The crucial place of music in Kaurismäki’s oeuvre should hardly be surprising. After all, his very first film, 1981’s The Saimaa Gesture (co-directed with his big brother, Mika), was a documentary following the Finnish bands Juice Leskinen Slam, Eppu Normaali, and Hassisen Kone on a boat tour around the lake Saimaa, 250 kilometers northeast of Helsinki, near the Russian border. His US breakthrough came with another musical picture, Leningrad Cowboys Go America (1989), every bit the equal of This Is Spinal Tap (1984) in the pantheon of great spoof rockumentaries. And, between the features, his official list of credits is punctuated by music videos for the Finnish schlager singer Markus Allan and the groups Melrose and the Leningrad Cowboys themselves. 

Shadows in Paradise (Aki Kaurismäki, 1986).

You never seem to be far from a musician in a Kaurismäki movie. Almost all of his films feature at least one scene of a band performing on stage. Regular cast members Sakari Kuosmanen and the late, great Matti Pellonpää both played in bands alongside their acting careers. Safka Pekkonen from Hassisen Kone turns up as a piano player in Shadows in Paradise (1986) and again in Juha (1999). Nicky Tesco from the UK punk band The Members has brief roles in both Leningrad Cowboys Go America and I Hired a Contract Killer (1990), with the latter featuring a cameo from Joe Strummer. 

Even when Kaurismäki’s characters aren’t musicians, they seem to look and act like musicians: dressed in leather jackets and black sunglasses, driving old Cadillacs and constantly chain-smoking. It’s a pattern set by the director’s early feature, Calamari Union (1958). The film introduces many of the recurring ingredients of Kaurismäki-land: not just the shades, the smokes, the vintage cars, but also a soundtrack loaded with freewheeling American blues and rock ’n’ roll singers—Elmore James, John Lee Hooker, Chuck Berry—who are at the antipode of stereotypical Finnish reserve. Jonathan Romney detected here something “revealing about Finnish culture, about the thirst for Americana on the one hand and the fascination with the neighboring former USSR on the other.”1 Significant, then, that the portal for this music is so often at once a consumer good and a symbol of state propaganda: the radio.

Radio sets abound in Kaurismäki’s films. They tend to be either big wood-framed boxy things or plasticky little portable transistors, brightly colored and housed in Bakelite. Suffice to say, you won’t see any portable Bluetooth speakers. These tuners are often practically characters in themselves. In 1987’s hallucinatory Shakespeare adaptation, Hamlet Goes Business, one is even used a murder weapon. But they’re always treasured possessions. When a character packs up their meager belongings to set off for a new life—as Turo Pajala’s ex-miner does at the start of Ariel (1988) and Kati Outinen’s checkout clerk does after getting evicted from her apartment in Shadows in Paradise—there’s invariably a radio in tow alongside their boxy little suitcase. 

Drifting Clouds (Aki Kaurismäki, 1996).

The presence of a radio set seems to be necessary to establish a given location as a “home,” even, as in Ariel, in the most squalid of halfway houses. It’s the radio that anchors these films to a present: news reports about the devastation wrought in the Philippines by Typhoon Angela in Drifting Clouds (1996) or about the war in Ukraine in Fallen Leaves. But also the songs that we hear from radio sets unmoor the films from any particular present and render them timeless, whether that’s old school R&B or the ubiquitous Finnish-language covers of jazz standards, like “Love Me or Leave Me” and “Autumn Leaves.” When Kaurismäki’s characters aren’t musicians themselves, they’re invariably music listeners, eking out a scrap of reverie amidst the drudgery of everyday working life—an image crystallized in the moment Pellonpää’s beetle-browed garbageman Nikander finds a 7-inch record among the trash he’s collecting in Shadows in Paradise. The anonymous hero of The Man Without a Past (2002) may live in a beat-up shipping container, but his sole item of furniture is a beautiful old jukebox. 

In an essay by Peter von Bagh for the liner notes of the 2006 compilation Jukebox: Music in the Films of Aki Kaurismäki, the director is quoted as saying that he will always grab an armful of his own discs before setting off for the edit suite to finish his latest picture. Through his films we get a peek at his record collection: ill-fated British mods The Renegades, a surprising number of tangos (a genre Kaurismäki once claimed was invented not in Argentina but in Finland), and the symphonies of Shostakovich and Tchaikovsky which gave Hamlet Goes Business its distinctly operatic feel.

The Match Factory Girl (Aki Kaurismäki, 1990).

Music’s function in these films is intimately tied to Kaurismäki’s class politics. The playing of an instrument is often presented as offering a moment of repose for working men, like a fleeting glimpse of liberty. In Calamari Union, we see a hotel doorman sit down on the job to strike up a song. In Leningrad Cowboys Go America, a barber puts down his scissors for a moment and picks up a guitar. In Fallen Leaves, the local bar’s weekly karaoke session gives a stone-faced metalworker a fleeting chance for self-expression. But most often, as in the meet-cute between Ansa and Holappa in Fallen Leaves, music is there to fill in for the missing emotional outpouring of characters too stilted to express themselves. When Outinen’s doe-faced Iris is left alone at the town dance after all the other girls have been picked for a turn by eager suitors in The Match Factory Girl, the band are left to give voice to her unspoken longings for love and escape: “Hurry away now my song / Fly to that land of dreams / Where my sweet darling faithfully waits for me.”

In the same liner notes to Jukebox, Kaurismäki explains, “For me, music serves somewhat the same purpose as at public dances, where people are too shy to utter a word but the music makes up for the conversation. The muteness of my characters may seem exotic to people abroad, and one they cannot understand as they dance ecstatically in their loin-cloths from sunrise to sunset. But there is also a personal reason behind it: when, as a young man, I tried to approach someone at a public dance, the reply was curt and I was left alone with the music.” Made by an adult still haunted by this youthful rejection, his movies respond with a universal truth: that no one is ever truly alone when there is music playing.

  1.      Jonathan Romney, “Last Exit to Helsinki: The Bleak Comedic Genius of Aki Kaurismäki, Finland’s Finest,” Film Comment 39, no. 2 (March/April 2003): 45 

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