There’s a horrible sense of dread associated with the first few moments of Talihina Sky: The Kings Of Leon Story. During the opening credits, the band are pictured sound checking, idling away time in the dressing room and riding around empty arenas on Segways looking like complete tools. It’s hard not to expect the next 90 minutes to be full of more archetypal rock doc fodder, like sped up footage up roadies loading in and plaintive interviews with the band as they talk about the difficulties of life on the road.
Thankfully, the film (which had it’s world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City last Thursday) avoids pretty much all those boring surface clichés and takes you much deeper into the Kings’ collective psyche. And it can be a pretty weird place. The band’s music and rise to fame might be interesting to fans, but the broader story of the Followill family is what Talihina Sky chooses to foreground to a more universally fascinating effect.
Primarily, director Stephen C. Mitchell explores their roots and adolescence in the backwoods of the American Midwest in a way that’s more intimate and detailed than you could ever imagine. The first third of the film in particular is like an episode of The Beverly Hillbillies as Mitchell introduces an extended group of friends of family who still live in Oklahoma and either dress in dungarees, drink moonshine or talk like Boomhauer in King Of The Hill.
The band talk frankly about an eyebrow-raising upbringing, travelling across the heart of America with their Pentecostalist preacher father. Between memories of singing gospel, speaking in tongues and living in abject poverty in the name of the lord, it’s nice to hear that the Followill brothers did occasionally find time to have some fun. Sometimes that would be Nathan illicitly watching Sesame Street on their TV, Jared getting a tape of the Pixies’ ‘Surfer Rosa’ from the goth kid at school or Caleb getting to “second base” with a girl… who was also his cousin.
Even as the documentary charts their rise to fame using their own private video archive (including some thrilling footage of their now legendary first London gigs), this straightjacketed upbringing never leaves them and provides the main source of conflict for the film. As easy as it would be for the Kings Of Leon to say that they’ve rejected religion for rock stardom, the hell-fearing indoctrination they received as kids clearly still weighs them down.
The idea that they’re going to burn for eternity as a result of choosing this supposedly sinful life remains something that even now, they struggle to refute. In the case of Caleb especially, Mitchell hints heavily that the singer’s turmoil has driven him to the brink of alcoholism. One scene in particular features the band brutally castigating him on the tour bus for getting drunk and talking shit to everyone around him.
Again, the debauched and belligerent rock star is painfully obvious rock doc stock, but framed within the greater battle that Talihina Sky presents, Caleb’s descent to the bottom of the glass is pretty difficult to watch.
The fact that Kings Of Leon all have Segways and play arenas is easily the least interesting thing about them and Mitchell realizes that. The way that Talihina Sky focuses on Nathan, Jared, Caleb and Matthew as people outside of the band rather than solely portraying them as idolized, pedestal-dwelling rock stars ultimately makes it a compelling and often touching watch.
You get the feeling that’s it going to be a long time before anyone makes a band documentary as interesting and enjoyable as this - if only because most people haven’t lived the kind of lives that the Followills have.
'Talihina Sky: The Kings Of Leon Story' will be released in the UK later this year