Some things are best in small doses. Cheesecake and Ketamine come to mind. The more-is-not-necessarily-better conundrum confronts the creators of “Scream of My Blood: A Gogol Bordello Story,” a Vice News documentary about the punk folk band Gogol Bordello and Eugene Hütz, the band’s charismatic lead singer. Hütz also doubles as a Ukrainian activist/raconteur/resident deep thinker. He can be a lot. Audiences’ appreciation of the doc will depend on their patience with Hütz, a man whose intentions are good even if his volume is always set to 11.
Directors Nate Pommer and Eric Weinrib have the difficult task of trying to explain a 24-year-old cult band in 99 minutes. It is very much an immigrant story. There’s an early shot of Hütz swaggering onstage with the band — a mélange of violinists, drummers and guitarists — and baptizing the audience with his beer.
But soon the film drops into Hütz’s origin story. He was born in Ukraine during the last decades of the repressive and rotting Soviet regime. He had the double strike of being both Ukrainian and Roma. Hütz remembers only three colors: the gray of the buildings, the yellow of the sand needed to build more gray buildings and the blue sky above. His first real introduction to Ukrainian music and dance happens when his family flees Kyiv for Western Ukraine after the Chernobyl meltdown. He talks in wonder of the “flamboyant” customs of his countrymen who existed a few hundred miles further away from Moscow’s reach.
The Soviet Union’s fall allowed his family to emigrate, first to Europe and then to Burlington, Vt., where Hütz made his first friends at a record shop by simply repeating the name of punk bands, Dead Kennedys and The Ramones. In his 20s, he moved to New York City and found like-minded musicians —many of them immigrants — who cottoned to his vision of a band that leaned on Ukrainian traditions, classical violin, Dadaesque lyrics and elaborate stage presentations.
Hütz’s story is fascinating and triumphant as the band progresses to semi-stardom in the 2000s with appearances on Conan and David Letterman. Still, the film is less claustrophobic when he is off-camera and other members are interviewed. This is true, even if there is an unintentional Spinal Tap moment in their appearances as the years they were in the band flashes on the screen like dates on a tombstone. (Violinist Sergey Ryabtsey is the only member other than Hütz who remains from its early days). But they have something to say. Pedro Erazo has been in Gogol Bordello since 2007 as a sort of co-MC. He’s an Ecuadorean who has lived his adult life in the United States. He quietly mentions that he feels like a tourist in Ecuador and with his accent won’t ever be completely American. But he then lets out a luminous smile. He notes that he doesn’t have to belong to a country to feel like he belongs in the world. Erazo captures the immigrant experience in 30 seconds in a way that Hütz doesn’t manage throughout the documentary.
Gogol Bordello has shed members at a terrific rate through the years; there are now more ex-bandmates than actual bandmates. Some of the departures can be explained by Hütz’s manic drive — the band frequently did 200 shows a year — but not all of it. The film doesn’t dig deeply into how Hütz is perceived by other band members, apart from some cursory praise. He is either the most benevolent band leader since Alexander’s Ragtime Band or the directors left any sign of strife out of the film.
Eventually, the grind even beat down the maestro. Hütz talks of shows where he “went horizontal to vertical without a lot in between.” He eventually escapes to Brazil where he learns meditation and qi gong between DJ gigs. While important to Hütz’s growth and sanity, the footage of him actually doing qi gong leaves a “Documentary Now!” aftertaste. It’s one of the films’ flaws: taking Hütz too seriously. There’s a moment when Hütz muses something quasi-profound about the world being an organism as is every human being. The film then cuts to shots of galaxies and other cosmic scenes.
No matter, “Scream of My Blood” remains essential, if only for its archival concert footage. Gogol Bordello’s shows captured in the film — whether on the Lower East Side or an outdoor show in Chicago with its giant Ukrainian community — show incandescently joyful fans, many of whom, like Hütz, have been on a long journey to find a place for themselves in a strange land.
Toward the end of the film, Russia has invaded Ukraine. Hütz and the band travel home and make a trip to visit refugee centers and play for soldiers. We see Hütz in stark midday sun for the first time. There’s a moment of silence for the fallen, and uniformed young men and women stand at attention. But then the band plays. The once rigid soldiers dance and sing, smile and cry. They should be at cafes and bars instead of brandishing rifles, but for a moment they forget all that. They look young and immortal.
“If music could change the world, we’d be living in heaven a long time ago,” says Hütz in a quiet voice. His eyes then light up. “But music is a form of magic.”