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November 27, 2004

Screaming Men

Boston Globe (MA):

There are a cappella singing groups that harmonize with lilting consideration for sensitive ears. And then there are the Screaming Men, who don't. They perform pretty much as their name indicates -- in cacophonous, conceptual primal shouts. The director Mika Ronkainen has made a likable little docu-profile, also called ''The Screaming Men," that follows his fellow Finns around as they tour the world. (Believe it or not, this is the second documentary about an offbeat Scandinavian singing group; Knut Erik Jensen's ''Cool and Crazy" came through Boston in 2002.)

Ronkainen shows us how the rehearsals go and how audiences respond to their music (usually with bewilderment), which is like strongly harmonized stadium chanting. The film opens handsomely, with the group's 25 members waddling off a boat and onto ice for a song, whose principal audience is the movie's camera. Ronkainen has a good time photographing the men so that they resemble penguins in their black suits, white shirts, and neckties made of sections of rubber inner tube. But the movie goes only so deep. It's content to celebrate the group's quirks without investigating them. The only Screaming Man we get to know is Petri Sirvi, and he doesn't even scream. Sirvi conducts, serving as the focal point of both the film and the curious international media, for whom he can barely keep a lid on his contempt.

In treating the members almost as a single entity, the movie is faithful to Sirvi's musing that the Screaming Men use their ''private voices in a collective way." That way is chiefly subversion. For instance, they do booming, mangled remixes of various national anthems, including a brutalized ''La Marseillaise," which a Parisian organizer tried to prevent. (When the group opts not to do Iceland's -- apparently it's unlawful to alter it -- the prime minister vows to change the law so it can receive the Screaming Men treatment.) But the group does seem nervous about whether they can successfully entertain a Japanese audience. Sirvi gives a cogent lecture that explains why shouting is such a valid form of communication and release, and people in the audience take notes.

The movie also gives us another brief window into Finnish culture, which seems to treasure the idiosyncrasies of self-expression or -- in the case of the collective nature of the Screaming Men -- group expression. Ronkainen's camera sits in on a few grueling auditions for new recruits. But these men want to be there badly, as if they couldn't think of a more personally satisfying alternative. In both ''The Screaming Men" and a few movies by the easygoing Finnish filmmaker Aki Kaurismaki, these flights of musical eccentricity are cooler and maybe mentally healthier than a 9-to-5 job.

Posted by acapnews at November 27, 2004 12:26 AM