Time of the Gypsies: Punk Rock Opera, Emir Kusturica, 2007

August 24, 2008 at 12:42 am

On arrival in Paris in March earlier this year, I almost immediately came across large posters in the metro, advertising the extended run of Kusturica’s rock opera version of his acclaimed 1989 film Time of the Gypsies. There were only a few days left to go see the spectacle, but when I inquired I realized that I was not really prepared to spend the 75 Euro for the ticket; I did not think it would be worth it. As I did not go to see the live show, I cannot really judge if I was right in my decision to skip it. Eventually, however, I bought the DVD recording of the same show and have now watched it. It is available from FNAC and Amazon in France, in a French subtitled version. There is no evidence that this punk opera has played elsewhere, but this may change.

The forty-five strong team behind the opera is as follows: The music, much of which relies on recycling traditional Romani folk songs (including the famous Ederlezi), is credited to Dejan Sparavalo, Nenad Jankovic (a.k.a. Dr. Nele Karajlic), and Stribor Kusturica (the director’s son who has been authoring the music for most of his father’s recent films). The libretto is by Dr. Karajlic, and the score is performed by The No Smoking Orchestra and by The Garbage Serbian Philharmonics. On the DVD the performance is listed as using the Romani language (‘Tsigane’) but in fact there was singing in a variety of languages, including English and Serbian. Closely following the plot of the film, the show was disappointing in the degree to which it was being pedestrian: the score was more than mundane at moments, the singing mediocre for the most part, the acting overdone, the mise-en-scene crowded, the colours too bright; the cast was exuding forced excitement that lacked in endearment.

I personally believe it is a pity to see the wonderful Time of the Gypsies and its magic realist imagery of recycled into such brash inferiority. But then, it is the director’s right to exploit his material in ways that he sees fit. And the material is all here: Flocks of ducks cross the scene, cardboard boxes move around, flying brides and ascending protagonists abound. All of Kusturica’s trademark iconography is mobilized for the enjoyment of his dedicated French fans who enthuse at the appearance of each one of these familiar images. In case this is not enough, there are also dwarfs and soap bubbles. Occasional scenes from the film (e.g. the magnificent river vista from Perhan’s first dream) are used on the background, projected on the stage with the image of the actor currently playing Perhan, superimposed on it (with his sweet looks, this one is miles removed from the bespectacled charm of the late Davor Dujmovic, who played in the original film).

In the context of viewing the DVD, I could not help thinking yet once again that the continuous close collaboration with Dr. Nele Karajlic is Kusturica’s biggest liability of recent years. The history of the friendship between the two can be traced back to Sarajevo over nearly three decades, and is rooted in the contex of the ‘surrealist’ punk group of which the director was part back in his native town (see Top Lista Nadrealista, 1984). Dr. Karajlic, a rock musician, resurfaced as a pillar of Kusturica’s creative entourage after the director’s much publicized split with acclaimed composer Goran Bregovic (who has since pursued a successful international career with his Orchestra for Weddings and Funerals). Dr. Karajlic, who authored the music for Black Cat,White Cat (1998), is the driving force behind the No Smoking Orchestra and behind many of the noisy and portentious commercial ventures to the marketing of which Kusturica has lent his name over the past several years (concert tours, CD releases, etc.). In the punk opera Dr. Karajlic appears in the role of Ahmed, the Godfather, which he squanders with unconvincing stage presence, obtuse acting, and ghastly singing in heavily accented English — all these skills applied intentionally in an evidently sound effort to sicken and put off.

The accompanying ‘Making of…’ documentary shows Kusturica and Dr. Karajlic bickering over the idea of an ‘opera’, with Kusturica defending it and Dr. Karajlic, a dedicated punk rocker, disputing it. They end up at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem where each one of them leaves a little note with a wish. Kusturica wins and the opera materializes. The rest of the documentary shows various stages of the preparations and the rehearsals. It also includes a shot featuring a long line of people who are queuing in front of the Bastille Opera, allegedly to get themselves tickets to the event. Well, it is a known fact that the French evidently still like Kusturica, even though some comments made by my French acquaintances suggested that his latest feature, Promise Me, has prompted some cooling down even among his most hard-core fans.

© Dina Iordanova
24 August 2008

The film Time of the Gypsies (1989), a largely unavailable masterpiece, has finally been released on a DVD in France (unfortinately, it only has got French subtitles). You can buy it through the link below. See also my book, Emir Kusturica (London: Britsh Film Institute, 2002).