SXSW 2014 Big in Japan Review: Tennis Pro Tunes and Tokyo Shine
Before the premiere of director John Jeffcoat’s latest film, Big In Japan, at South by Southwest 2014, he made it a point to note that this was not a documentary, which honestly could be quite an easy jump to make. The film stars the actual band Tennis Pro, comprised of members David Drury, Phil Peterson and Sean Lowry, as themselves. While the film is in fact not a documentary, it is based loosely on actual event that led the band, after toiling seven years in an unforgiving music scene, on an impromptu trip to Japan to get inspired, gain some fans and hopefully keep the dream alive.
What follows is a “band on the run” type feature filled with zany antics and a fair share of fish out of water moments. Everyone’s broke, every good idea blows up in their face. Each reveal of their multiple hotel arrangements always makes for a good laugh and their attempts at adapting to Japanese culture comes off as endearing rather than callous. When the band ultimately has to make a big decision about their future, their camaraderie is put to the ultimate test, as is their safety when faced with a terrible earthquake that shakes the entire country to it’s core.
While the band comes across a bit green at times in their acting and line deliveries, it ends up adding a bit of honesty to the film, which helps elevate it above standard fare. Where the guys truly shine is when they are doing what they were meant to be doing and that’s playing music. This film is packed to the gills with some great tunes. With their earnest and jangly pop rock jams, I can’t fathom anyone not becoming a Tennis Pro fan by the end of the film. There’s also a great bunch of Japanese bands that pop up through various shows and leave lasting impressions themselves.
Big In Japan at its core is here to tell Tennis Pro’s story, but the true star of the film is Tokyo itself. One would be hard pressed to find a more beautiful city with so much culture and excitement around every corner and down every alley. It’s in the film’s many montages that the city truly comes alive. There are some especially moving and affecting moments after the earthquake hits. Seeing people get on with their lives and even enjoying themselves instead of caving in to the surrounding tragedy and fear is quite uplifting and powerful.
With music being so integral to the film itself, it’s only fitting that the film’s most poignant moment comes in the form of the healing, universal power of music. Just after the earthquake and amidst the panic and disarray, Phil stumbles upon a mother and daughter, the latter with cello in tow. Phil asks if he can play and what ensues is one of the most genuinely sublime moments I’ve seen in film this year. Strangers come up to hear this beautiful music Phil is making and the other bands members skip their cab ride, and possibly only way home for a while, just so as to not interrupt the song. Everyone around forgets about the madness surrounding them and just loses themselves for a brief moment in time and it’s truly beautiful.
On the surface, Big In Japan is simply the story of a band looking for one last shot at “making it,” but thanks to the heart at the core of it, the film becomes so much more. With some beautiful cinematography, a soundtrack that will have you dancing in your seat and some uplifting moments that will last with you for days, Big In Japan is definitely a film worthy of one’s time and attention. It’s an inspiring film with no shortage of laughs and heart. A truly lovely blend of music and film.
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