Udo Lindenberg is a big thing around here. Instantly recognisable with a big hat, big coat and big lips, he had a jukebox musical nearly 10 years ago, long before jukebox musicals became the Thing they are now. He played historic concerts in East Berlin, and has been a thorn in the side of the far right, from when he organised Rock Gegen Rechts concerts in the 1970s to more recent confrontations with the AfD.
This film is about none of these things. Nor should it have to be, although you’d think that there’s a film to be made there. Instead we have a much more basic history of the early days, ending with Lindenberg’s first big breakthrough as a star.
The film starts with three parallel stories. First there’s his youth at the end of the world in Gronau, in the thrall of his dominating drunkard father who tells him that he’ll end up as a plumber, because that’s what Lindenbergs do. Then there are the early days in Hamburg, playing first as a jazz drummer in the bars in the red light area. This is interspersed with a brief sojourn playing for the US troops in Libya.
I’m not really sure what the point of this interrupted chronology is. Maybe its to show how different specific experiences came together to make Lindenberg who he became. Maybe its to break up the narrative and keep us on our toes. Whatever its supposed to do, it didn’t really work. We don’t really learn anything extra, and the jumping between time and place serves mainly to irritate.
It also causes a little problem for people like me who can never remember which actor is supposed to be which (its a genetic disease you know, and my dad really has been diagnosed, so it may not just be me being lazy and forgetful). Udo keeps getting involved in little affairs with various women and you can never really remember if he’s cheating on someone else, or if that was something that happened a different era.
All this is picking on the edges of a much greater problem that I have with the film. Nearly 60 years since A Hard Day’s Night and nearly 50 years since That’ll be the Day, you’d have thought that a musical biopic could be a little less mundane than this.
Most of the clichés are present and correct. As well as the aforementioned rolls in the hay, there’s the rows which nearly break up the band, the unprincipled and dubiously dressed manager and the scene where he takes the empty stage in a bar, starts singing and is gradually accompanied by various musicians, because they leave all the amps turned on just in case don’t they?
There are also countless scenes of Udo drinking spirits from a bottle, because there’s nothing more entertaining than watching a young man just the wrong side of pissed, isn’t there? And yet apart from the occasional meltdown, he rarely behaves like someone would if he really just had necked a bottle of whiskey. And for all the drinking, promiscuity and drug taking, no-one really looks like they’re having much fun.
I think the deciding factor which didn’t bring me on board, though, was the music. One of the reasons that Rocket Man worked was that although Elton John has had no musical credibility in decades, the body of work that he produced in the first half of the 1970s is quite phenomenal. Lindenberg! does not even contain the hits from the musical, but the not-really-that-good early stuff. I’m quite prepared to accept that for people who grew up with Lindenberg, there are still enough good memories here. For an outsider like me, its just a series of average songs performed by someone whose acting is better than his singing.
There are occasions where you think that we may go somewhere interesting. A couple of times, there is a debate about whether Lindenberg’s choice to sing in German means that he is using the language of the perpatrators (“Täter”, which has a very specific meaning in post-Nazi Germany). And when he writes a song about one of his loves in East Berlin, the record company is reluctant to even put it on the “B” side because of the potential political controversy of acknowledging that there are people who live the other side of the wall.
In each case, just as we are preparing ourselves for a meaningful discussion, it all fizzles out. Instead we see a story about a group of unsuccessful musicians leading a life which is slightly disreputable but no more so than anyone else of their age. Without the Lindenberg connection, there’s not much to see here.
It is all perfectly serviceable, but there are enough musical biopics out there for us to really need another, if its not offering us anything new. Maybe it would be different for someone who was weaned on Lindenburg, but there wasn’t really enough in it for me.