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Film Review: Kings Of Leon - 'Talihina Sky'

All the usual on-the-road footage, but it’s only when it leaves the tourbus and delves into the family baggage that this doc takes off.

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You remember when Kings Of Leon did that video for ‘Radioactive’? The one that has been subtitled in the popular imagination as ‘The Followills’ barbecue with cute black children’? And you remember how everyone wondered what exactly they were trying to say? Was this an attempt to beef their authenticity by casting themselves as down-home folk who still know where their roots are despite the three-trillion album sales? Or was it merely an attempt to sell the gritty glamour of the South to their newly global audience? And why were they playing ‘soccer’ with these sprogs anyway? Was that another attempt to go global, by embracing futbol mundial?

Well, 87 minutes of Talihina Sky leaves you with a lot of the same questions. Not about the purpose of the black kids – they’ve been sent back to the casting agency – but about the message we’re being sold here. It’s a lumpy but not unlikeable mish-mash of about four different documentaries. One – a boring On Da Road tour documentary for a stadium rock band, complete with ‘band larking about on Segways’ and ‘roadies load out equipment’ sequences. Two – a colour piece about just how goshdarned salt-of-the-earth the good ol’ boys who make up the Followill clan are; how the Kings effectively own the values brandspace of ‘Southern’. Three – a VH1-style narrative press release on the rise and rise of the Kings Of Leon.

Four – (certainly the most interesting) the story of their relationships with their preacher dad, believer mom, and the sheer weight of JC baggage they’re still struggling to find a place for. Their father gingerly tells the cameras that he still believes they’ll probably go to hell. Mom explains how Caleb talked in tongues loads when he was little, there’s rare footage of Caleb and Nathan singing gospel, juxtaposed with lots of city-slicker journalists condescending to ask them about their faith (Caleb: “I still talk to God a lot.” Hack: “Does he reply?”). Is it a primer, a retrospective, or a narrative?

The uniting theme to all this, insofar as there is one, has to do with the Kings returning to the annual bash of the Followill and Brown clans in Talihina, Oklahoma. Deeply rural Southerners who catch grass snakes, host horseshoe-chucking contests, end their days with a rousing ‘Star-Spangled Banner’ and thoroughly enjoy praising Jesus, their relatives are what you might patronisingly call ‘colourful’, and it’s seldom clear where the at/with balance lies in the laughs they generate.

The Kings have ascended so far into the stratosphere they sometimes feel more like an extension of the military-industrial complex than a band of brothers, so it’s heartening to be administered this sort of perspective refresher; their preacher-daddy isn’t just a legend, a footnote on a press release, he’s real, and deep down they’re all just cool young dudes with lives and pasts, remember? There’s some ‘Holy Roller Novocaine’ UK tour footage that brings all of that flooding back, the naughty hilarity of them flying into Singapore stoned, and a flash of real drama when Caleb gets into an apocalyptic tourbus slanging match about his Jekyll & Hyde booze issues.

But no-one has held their nerve enough to find a story within all this data – indeed, as soon as it feels like Caleb’s still waters might run deep, we’re tugged back into things like two minutes of self-shot footage of them looking for a working vending machine in a hotel, then into Adam Curtis-style offbeat stock montages of people talking in tongues, then a song, then Caleb in his chair, drinking his Jameson’s, getting all philosophical about how you just gotta do a bit of everything when you’re young, y’know, ’cos you might regret it when you’re old.

Message: some weird stuff happened. But I guess it’ll work out OK in the end. This is probably accurate, but it doesn’t add up to a story worthy of cinematic release. Shorn to an hour and put on MTV2, Talihina Sky would be a brilliant post-pub find. As it stands, it is franked from the off with Fans Only. But given how many fans they’ve got, that shouldn’t be a problem, right?

Gavin Haynes

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