A men’s chorus from a rust-belt Norwegian town might not seem the most obvious subject for a documentary, but in “Cool and Crazy” Knut Erik Jensen makes it seem the most natural–and charming–idea in the world. Alternately lovely, funny, moving, perceptive and sad, it does what all the best non-fiction films do–introduce us to great characters and allow us to get to know them warts and all. By the close you’re reluctant to see them go.
Berlevag, a coastal village in Finnmark (the northernmost county in Norway, bordering northern Finland and Russia), many of whose male residents make up the group, is shown as a place of economic depression: the fisheries that have been the employment mainstay since time immemorial have mostly closed, leaving many out of work and uncertain about the future. Still, the tradition of the town choir is maintained. Some of its members are lovable old codgers in their eighties, others far younger; but all of them are protective of one another, and of the area they represent–however bleak and desolate it might appear to outsiders. Though a canny compilation of intimate interviews with individual choristers and members of their families, footage of them going about their lives, staged sequences and snippets of their rehearsals and performances (most notably coverage of their trip to sing in a show in the nearby Russian city of Murmansk), Jensen builds an affectionate, revealing portrait of a bunch of self-deprecating, sometimes quarrelsome but curiously endearing working-class guys who share lovingly in a common enterprise they all embrace. (The trip to Russia proves especially incisive: two singers argue petulantly over the virtues of communism–one of them is an unregenerate Marxist, who refuses even to criticize the environmental rape of the land by the Stalinist state–but in the end the performance they give earns them a standing ovation.) And the periodic static shots of the group singing outdoors, often in the midst of whirling winds and blizzard-condition snow squalls that virtually obliterate the image, are blissfully, incongruously beautiful.
“Cool and Crazy” isn’t a didactic film–its messages are quiet and muted. What stands out clear and vibrant is the passion and commitment of the chorus members, even in their town’s depressed circumstances, and the almost redemptive power of music. The effect is, in its way, as effortlessly uplifting as last year’s “Down from the Mountain,” and the music, while very different, is also wonderful. Though many of the songs are nationalistic odes with echoes of Sibelius, one is a Norwegian rendition of the great old nineteenth-century American tune, “The Little Brown Church in the Wildwood.” The final line of this Scandinavian version is given in the subtitles as “It makes my spirit soar.” Most viewers will find that the sentiment summarizes the effect of the movie, too.