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[HanCinema's Film Review] "Highway Stars"


Most musical biopics have a tendency to try to emphasize the inherent conflict in running a band, highlighting all the various drama and what-not to keep proceedings more exciting. That doesn't really work in "Highway Stars", because the jazz band showcased here, Udambara, is made up of devout Buddhists. Not being overly dramatic and emotional is kind of their thing. They play music, not to try and score chicks and drugs, but because they like playing music.

On a superficial level this makes for a fairly boring documentary, for the simple reason that everyone acts so ridiculously casual. Unusually, almost all of the footage takes place outdoors rather than indoors. This isn't just because Udambara's comeback is mostly focused on street music. There's also the matter of how everyone seems to be at their most comfortable and happy outdoors doing, well, natural stuff. Like sitting and talking while most of the screen space is taken up by random landscapes.

The music too almost perfectly matches this sentiment. While most of the sound here is from their original work, even by the later part of the movie when Undabara does a couple of classic standards it's pretty much just the same old smooth jazz. The music here doesn't promote excitement in any way. All that's there is just the satisfying content of inner peace as you let yourself flow along with the rhythm.

There's very little here in terms of actual explanation or gossip about who these men are. They exposit themselves not so much through the content of their stories as the incredibly calm way in which they tell it. It actually comes as a bit of a surprise when near the end, something finally goes wrong. It's a windy day. No, really, that's the entire crisis. It's enough to get one person to swear. Then the band just sets their instruments back up and sings another song.

"Highway Stars" isn't the kind of movie that leaves a very deep impression. But it definitely put me in a pretty good mood as I walked out the theater. There's an unusual amount of sincerity on display in the proceedings here. The band members make surprisingly down-to-earth jokes. Even when they move on greater musical analysis, the emphasis remains on how they're best to maintain an effective sense of easy listening.

Ultimately the film's best argument is the one that's never explicitly stated- the best reason to become a musician is to just relax and beat away the worries in life. "Golden Chariot in the Sky" from earlier this year had a similar message. On balance, though I liked "Highway Stars" more simply because the credible veneer of the documentary made the argument so much more effective.

There's just a lot to like about a music documentary where everyone's so upbeat. Maybe not always literally, but still. There's an effective message here about how music exists primarily to give other people rhythm. While Udambara's comeback doesn't change the world, it does put a person in the mood for having a good day. And really, isn't that a lot more important anyway?

Review by William Schwartz

"Highway Stars" is directed by Kim Ji-gon

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