J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Friday, January 22, 2016

Sundance 16: Belgica

You know what they say goes with rock & roll? Well, you can find plenty of both at the pseudo-grungy hipster nightclub mismanaged by two Belgian brothers. It starts with the best of rock & roll intentions but founders on the worst of rock & roll excesses. The music would not be out of place in the Knitting Factory, but the sex and drugs are worthy of Studio 54 at its peak in Felix van Groeningen’s Belgica (trailer here), which screens during the 2016 Sundance Film Festival.

Jo Cannoott is not his older brother Frank’s keeper, but he could use one. The younger Cannoott sibling is the relatively responsible one, but remains somewhat submissive when facing the unapologetically wild Frank. Partly this is due to the protection from bullies provided by the elder brother when Jo lost an eye due to an early childhood infection. Jo Cannoott dreams of remodeling the dingy Belgica, turning it into a hip but egalitarian club that will feature the latest Belgian electronica, alt rock, and hyphenated fusion bands. Initially, it smells more like the notorious CBGB bathrooms, but with a little elbow grease and palm-greasing, the Cannoott Brothers reshape it into a happening spot.

For a while, everything seems to be good, but Frank’s reckless drug use and shameless hook-ups start to rub Jo the wrong way. Frank’s wife is not too crazy about them either, especially since she is pregnant with their second child. Frustrated with his own failing relationship and baffled by some of Frank’s dubious unilateral business decisions, Jo starts to withdraw from the bad scene, but of course, he keeps getting pulled back in.

This film is over two hours, which is unnecessarily indulgent. We could easily get everything we need in ninety minutes, give or take. On the plus side, this time around, van Groeningen foregoes the ideological ax-grinding that made Broken Circle Breakdown so cringe-inducing. Admittedly, there is something perversely enjoyable about watching the brothers’ hedonism-driven fall, but after a while, the guilty pleasures all start to look the same.

Stef Aerts and Tom Vermeir are terrific as the two brothers so very flawed in so very different ways, but it is Hélène De Vos who shows real star power as Jo’s seductive but self-centered girlfriend Marieke. However, the film’s nagging problem is all the diverse musicians who make their way to Belgica’s stage seem more interesting than the characters hooking up and doing drugs around them.

In all honesty, it gets tiresome watching a man-child like Frank Cannoott make every possible mistake and basically ruin everything for the people around him. Van Groeningen is not shy about rubbing our noses in his failings. Belgica probably devotes ten times more space to the brothers’ downfall than their initial flush of success. Still, for adventurous rock and electronica fans, it boasts a rich and varied soundtrack. Earning a mild recommendation for fans of nightlife melodramas (it is better than Club Life, but not as good as Northern Soul), Belgica screens again this morning (1/22), Wednesday (1/27), and next Friday (1/27) in Park City, as part of this year’s Sundance.

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