John Jeffcoat’s last film at SIFF, the 2007 comedy Outsourced, was about a Seattle tech worker sent to a strange land, India. His latest film is about a Seattle band touring in a strange land, Japan, where it was also shot on location. The similarities end there with Big in Japan, as he and the three members of Tennis Pro explained over drinks recently at Still Liquor on Capitol Hill. The project is a hybrid—don’t call it a mockumentary—that Jeffcoat scripted, with some improvisation, after observing the band’s offstage antics.
“None of us had been to Japan before,” Jeffcoat recalls. It was total immersion, and culture shock, for both him and the three musicians, who’ve been performing together since 2003. They didn’t really know Jeffcoat when the project coalesced in 2009 with a Kickstarter funding campaign. He was finishing up the MTV webseries $5 Cover and was looking for some new project. The band, meanwhile, was hoping a few music videos would come of its first Japanese tour, which Jeffcoat and a two-man crew filmed using a handheld DSLR camera. Looking and behaving like tourists, or rock ‘n’ roll tourists, they had no permits while filming in the Tokyo bars and streets (and in the famous Yoyogi Park, where street dancers and buskers perform).
What we see in the cramped, rowdy subterranean bars of the bohemian Shimokitazawa district (usually called Shimokita) and the impossibly small sleeping-pod hostels is seen through Tennis Pro’s innocent eyes. All the crowds and neon, the wacky vending machines, the strange new food (including ice-cream hot dogs)—these become the basis for comic vignettes both in Seattle and Japan. (At one point, Phillip even becomes lost in an anime sequence!) “Everyone’s playing fictionalized versions of themselves,” says Jeffcoat, but certain biographical details come through.
Thus we have phlegmatic guitarist David Drury, also a writer and a part-time professional blackjack player; buoyant bassist and family man Phillip Peterson, whose wife and kids act in the film (“They were game”); and deadpan drummer/hairstylist Sean Lowry, the bachelor of the three, who sees the most temptation on their travels. (At one point, the group is staying in a brothel.)
The tone is brisk and light, reflecting both the pop energy of Tennis Pro—now selling the soundtrack via its website—and the bustle of Tokyo’s demimonde. The bars are bursting with other musical acts, sometimes more akin to performance art than Tennis Pro’s springy sound. Alcohol is constantly flowing, yet there are quieter moments of cultural incomprehension, too. (Studying the instructions for the world’s most complicated laundry machine, Dave reassures Phil, “Arrows mean the same thing in Japanese.”)
This zippy, well-textured travelogue avoids all the usual rock-doc clichés; you get the sense that the three musicians don’t take themselves too seriously, even while striving for more recognition. (“I’m sick of being a fucking novelty act,” Sean complains in the film.) There’s a real sense of being on tour from a band’s perspective: forever off-balance and punchy from the jetlag (and copious amounts of shōchū). As a distant influence, Jeffcoat mentions The Monkees TV show, to which I’d add a trace of Anthony Bourdain and Mr. Hulot.
In addition to following Tennis Pro on two of its three Japanese tours, Jeffcoat filmed in the bandmembers’ Seattle homes and neighborhoods, and shot club dates at Chop Suey. (The band will play at that Capitol Hill club on Thursday following the film’s screening at the nearby Egyptian.) Jeffcoat also plays a record-label executive in the film; and his soundman, Adam Powers, stepped in to play a hippie tourist with a hilariously unplaceable accent. Completed last year with local financing, Big in Japan premiered at the South by Southwest festival in March, where Tennis Pro also performed.
As the movie seeks a distributor, the plan is to tour it—and the band, of course—with stops naturally including Tokyo, where Tennis Pro has indeed gained a following. “We fit so well musically,” says Peterson today, citing the camaraderie of the Shimokita scene, where Tennis Pro would join other bands “to go out and eat together after the shows.”
“We were in our natural habitat,” says Drury, meaning onstage, backstage, and in bars—the life of a touring musician. The three bandmates have an easy rapport, in person and onscreen, which eased the transition to acting together. Lowry is the relative veteran in that regard, having done A Christmas Carol way back in high school; he compares the process of enacting Jeffcoat’s life-inspired vignettes to “hanging out and making each other laugh”—precisely what most touring bands do with their down time.
If there’s a story to Big in Japan, it’s the perennial tale of a band trying to establish a reputation, to become known. In the film, says Sean, “Seattle doesn’t get us, and they’ve never got us.” That may change with the movie, by treating Tennis Pro as an import product, a delicacy sent from Shimokita with love.
BIG IN JAPAN Egyptian (805 E. Pine St., 324-9996, siff.net), $10–$12: 7 p.m. Thurs., June 5. SIFF Cinema Uptown (511 Queen Anne Ave. N.), 12:30 p.m. Sat., June 7.
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