Dir: Enrico Ciccu
(subtitled: Japanese, English)
Who knew that the formative spirits of rock ’n’ roll like Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly and Elvis Presley still haunt the downtown clubs and back alleys of contemporary Tokyo with such …life? Ghostroads is a kooky spooky showcase of a thriving J-Rock underground scene, which venerates the pioneers of the low-slung guitar, and shines a spotlight on its multifarious stars of today.
Renowned Japanese guitar hero Mr Pan plays Tony, enigmatic leading light of The Screamin’ Telstars. He finds himself in a mysterious guitar store when a screeching solo goes one louder and blows his trusty speaker the night before a gig. Lurking beyond the regular equipment, in a forbidden back room, he’s drawn to a battered old amp that seems to be just begging to be taken. It’s as if it’s beckoning him somehow, talking to him even. The looming shopkeeper lets him take such a tatty piece of junk away for nothing. A struggling retailer donating goods for free is maybe the point at which he should have become suspicious…
Sure enough, all was too ghoul to be true, and the voice, the spirit of the amp, shimmies into existence before him. A classic ‘the devil has all the best tunes’ scenario unfolds as, under the ghostly guidance of this sharp-suited spectral soul man (Darrell Harris), Tony can suddenly play like the wind. “All you need is the perfect song… and the rest will take care of itself.” He’s driven on by his rivalry with the taunting frontman of The Mad Reader group (Tatsuji Nobuhara), while his increasingly erratic behaviour drives his own backing trio more and more discordant. Eager for stardom, Tony slavishly follows the sartorial paranormal demon making such tempting promises. All the soul man needs in return… is a soul.
This endearingly screwy set-up is a vibrant platform for the genuine rockers populating this genre-melding musical, and it’s undoubtedly the music that wins centre stage. The opening theme is instantly energising, while sharp visual angles and jump cuts style-consciously echo Tarantino. A non-stop soundtrack propels us throughout, never letting the momentum drop. The film mines a rich seam of quirky true-life talent, all masquerading under fictional names. The Screamin’ Telstars are played by Mr Pan’s The Neatbeats (‘the Japanese Beatles’), with punkier gang The Privates as their arch-enemies. Live performances by both bands are thrillingly captured in a suitably atmospheric and sweaty venue. And even legend of American alt-radio Rodney Bingenheimer is along for the ride.
A bilingual fusion of electrifying gigs, a street-wise spook, a wild-eyed narrator, and even a touch of burlesque is destined for cult fandom. It’s an affectionate labour of love, and the love being declared is for the iconic decade of rock’s birth. Classic film posters from the era deck the walls, and the apparition of the amp is heralded by that universal signifier of the supernatural and the schlocky fifties B-movie, the wobbly theremin.
Impressively produced on a micro-budget, the ghostly effects are rudimentary, and the alternating of Japanese and English dialogue can occasionally feel a touch stilted. But it all adds to a fifties sensibility with a fresh injection of charm. An accomplished debut, its key success is to carve out a proudly distinctive and enjoyably bizarre niche. With an anarchic edge, and a fittingly freeform jam structure, this is an upliftingly eccentric introduction to an alternative music culture that crosses linguistic and geographical boundaries. Ghostroads raises the spirit of the dead to scream to the world that the J-rock underground is alive and kicking.
★ ★ ★