“Linda Linda! Linda Linda Lin-DAH!!!”
A group of Japanese schoolgirls start a rock-and-roll band, playing forgotten ’80s hits. If that isn’t a “can’t fail” premise, I don’t know what is.
After not quite fitting in as part of their high school’s rock-and-roll club, Kei (Yu Kashii, Death Note), Kyoko (Aki Maeda, Battle Royale), and Nozomi (Shiori Sekine, of the rock band Base Ball Bear) decide to start their own all-girl rock band to play at an upcoming school festival. After discovering the punk style of ’80s Japanese sensation The Blue Hearts, the girls find their sound. Now all they need is a singer. Enter Son (Du-na Bae, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance), a foreign exchange student from Korea who promises to do her best with the vocals. As the girls’ first gig rapidly approaches, they spend more and more time in rehearsal, sacrificing hours they’d usually spend on homework, after-school jobs, and sleep. Will they become the stars of their school, or will they crash and burn?
Most rock-and-roll movies of this type almost always have that scene in which the newly formed band has its first jam session. Because this is normally the movie’s first big musical number, the band sounds great right from the start, miraculously. In Linda Linda Linda, the band’s first rehearsal doesn’t go well. Everyone’s timing is off, notes are missed, and the vocals are shaky. This is hard on the ears, but it’s also really funny. Once the song ends, the four band members share a concerned glance, and then they burst out laughing, capping the scene nicely. I’ve never been in a band, but I’m guessing most rockers who see this scene will nod their heads and say, “I’ve been there.” This is what I like about Linda Linda Linda; it tosses out the usual clichés of the rock-and-roll genre in favor of a more naturalistic approach.
This approach applies to the music as well, with it being a natural fit for these characters and this setting. I never made it to Japan during the ’80s, so I have no context as to how popular (or not) the Blue Hearts were, but it seems just right that it would appeal to these girls as they search for just the right sound for their band. The songs are catchy and upbeat, making them a nice match for the girls, but there’s also an edge to the music, giving it that intangible “cool” quality, making it harder-sounding than the typical girly ’80s bubblegum pop. Another naturalistic element to the film is that there are no stakes. In most movies of this kind, the band’s gig is normally needed to resolve some crisis, such as winning a contest, saving precious land from evil developers, or helping the guy get the girl (or vice versa). But in this movie, the girls’ only goal is merely to get on stage and play their song. That’s it, but in this case, that’s enough. They’re on a journey of sorts, and even though it’s a small journey, it’s worth taking.
Throughout the film, the girls form friendships and develop some self-confidence through the band, as expected. Mostly, though, I wanted to ask them, “Why so glum?” When the girls aren’t rocking and rolling, they’re moping. They wander about with sad looks on their faces, and most of their conversations have a dreary, melancholy tone. To add to this tone, director Nobuhiro Yamashita (No One’s Ark) prefers long takes in front of a single camera, with stretched-out dramatic pauses between each line of dialogue. Similarly, there are several shots of characters staring just to the side of the camera with blank, detached looks on their faces. At first I thought I had accidentally hit the “pause” button on my remote. But no, it was just long takes of the actors merely sitting there. So why is there so much malaise in what is at other times a perky rock movie? Is this just the usual post-millennium teenage ennui, or is there more to it that I’m not seeing?
Acting-wise, the star of the film is Du-na Bae as Son. In the “foreign exchange student” role, her character goes through the most change during the movie. When we first meet her, her Japanese is very rough, and she has a tough time figuring out some of the native customs. Seeing her practice her singing with a karaoke, she’s overly hesitant at first. She sings sitting down, staring at the floor, with a shaky voice. As time progresses, however, her voice improves, she stands up, and she even starts playing to a crowd that isn’t there—kind of like the whole “singing in front of the mirror” thing, but with a little more passion and sincerity. Her finest moment in the film, however, comes on the night before the big gig, when she walks out onto the stage in front of the empty auditorium and practices introducing the other band members to the crowd. She spends the entire scene framed with a plain white background, so that’s she’s the only thing on screen. As she gives each of her band mates a mock round of applause, what she’s really doing is expressing her love for each of them, and how they helped her come out of her shell. It’s an excellent piece of acting by Du-na Bae, and between her roles in this and in the Korean mega-hit The Host, her star will continue to rise, and we will continue to see more amazing performances from her in the future.
Although there are not a lot of flashy visuals on display here, the visuals look fairly sharp, especially in shots with a lot of blue in them, such as one scene at a swimming pool or glimpses of the sky on a sunny day. Audio is also good, not just during the songs, but in other big sound moments, such as a crowd’s applause (when the crowd does applaud) and an extended scene in a rainstorm. The audio is in Japanese only, with English subtitles.
Extras are slight. There are some text bios of the cast and director, followed by a short text piece about a few Japanese customs. An “audio FAQ” about the Blue Hearts follows, in which you click on a question with your remote to get an audio-only answer from a music expert. This is probably the best of the extras, providing a lot of background info about the band. There’s also the original Japanese teaser and trailer (non-subtitled) and an Americanized trailer (subtitled), plus trailers for three other Viz Media releases, Kamikaze Girls, Train Man, and The Taste of Tea.
Some viewers might not like how the film sways back and forth between peppy pop tunes and lethargic melancholy. I’d say the good outweighs the bad, though, and that by the time it concludes, you’ll find that Linda Linda Linda is far more likely to put a smile on your face than it is to induce hours of soul-searching misery.