I am not going to insist you should’ve heard of the local band Tennis Pro, nor be a fan, to enjoy this ersatz documentary, which follows the trio from Seattle ignominy to a slight bump of fame in Tokyo’s grubby bar-scape. What’s real here (chemistry, fun, music) is inseparable from the scripted material (fake, fake, fake) that director John Jeffcoat devised while trailing the pop-rockers on three Japanese tours. As he explained prior to the film’s SIFF screenings last year, comic vignettes were extrapolated and rewritten from the band’s travels abroad and struggles at home. The band members (and some family members) capably play themselves: David Drury, the phlegmatic guitarist and part-time professional blackjack player; Phillip Peterson, the buoyant bassist and family man; and Sean Lowry, the deadpan drummer/hairstylist/bachelor at large.
In the film, Tennis Pro resists the notion that they’re “a fucking novelty act” that doesn’t fit into our post-grunge/Macklemore music scene. On a bare-bones tour in Japan, however, they find the grunge halo useful—and even busk in a park wearing their Bjorn Borg tennis whites. Shady managers come and go, record deals are dangled, and our three heroes try to maintain their ideals (basically: loyalty to one another and their springy, bouncy pop sound). There’s even a detour into a Miyazaki-style anime sequence.
The plot here—and the zippy energy—isn’t much more complicated than an old episode of The Monkees: simply the comic misadventures of innocents abroad. What Big in Japan really has going for it is street-level pace and texture. Jeffcoat and his cast shot the film guerrilla-style, without permits, as the band performed and cavorted around Tokyo’s colorfully bohemian Shimokitazawa district (usually called Shimokita). This gives the film—which is not a documentary—a documentary feel; and Jeffcoat, director of the 2007 local comedy Outsourced, has ample experience with music videos and club-land milieu. (This project sprang from his experience on MTV’s $5 Cover series.) Certainly Big in Japan has its promotional aspect, but few films (or bands) manage the trick of both wanting to be liked and actually being likable. So if Tennis Pro thus books more gigs and sells more albums (yes, there’s a soundtrack), I’m fine with that.
Note: The band will perform after the Friday and Saturday screenings (preceded by Jeffcoat’s remarks); on Monday, Jeffcoat will present five Tennis Pro music videos, one new, at a free 6:30 p.m. screening.
BIG IN JAPAN Runs Fri., Feb. 20–Thurs., Feb. 26 at Northwest Film Forum. Not rated. 100 minutes.