9:45pm Feb 6
2:00pm Feb 8
Little known Seattle-based rock band Tennis Pro is having problems with notoriety and in what they realize is that they are not getting the attention that they deserve. When Alex Vincent (AKA Alex Shumway) of Green River fame takes notice and offers them the chance to pursue recognition in the land of the rising sun, perhaps their fame will truly be “Big in Japan.”
This rockumentary blends actual concert moments with a fictionalized narrative to tell the story of what guitarist David Drewery, drummer Sean Lowery and bassist Philip Pearson faced while in this country. From total culture shock in not quite realizing where they are to figuring out how to survive on a budget, the humour just happens naturally.
Director John Jeffcoat (Outsourced) crafts the comedic moments very well. In addition to looking at the stranger side of the independent music culture scene in Tokyo, Japan, some viewers may well wonder if these musicians knew what they were getting themselves into. From little sit-com comedy moments ala The Monkees that has each member tripping out to the light fantastic, perhaps the most funniest is in who Philip met and befriended. The most hilarious supporting role has to go to Adam Powers (who did the sound-mixing for this film) channeling the new age spirit of Shaggy Rogers from Scooby-Doo. In addition to visiting a maid cafe and bath house (to put it mildly), the yuk yuks are certainly out there.
But for the real story, this trio has to contend with finding and creating their unique identity so that the people from this country will recognize them. Through making new friends, performing at third-rate juke joints and busking illegally, not everyone will get them right away. Their luggage is lost and all they have are two sets of clothes, one either makes them look like rejects from the Renaissance Fair or resemble country club bumpkins (all they had were tennis whites). The latter is appropriate since what they wear represents their band’s mantra. Just what that means requires looking at who they are as actual people than fictional caricatures. Ultimately, this movie highlights their charm that wins audiences, on screen and off, over.
This band is legitimate and the movie they made is described by Drewery as 75% real. “If it was a documentary,” said Pearson, “then the film would have to be 20 hours to capture all the things we did.”
Originally pitched as a reality television show to MTV, this network gave the band their blessing when the cards were not quite right for another program about struggling musicians. In what Jeffcoat wanted to turn this film into — a platform to highlight this band’s musical diversity — the idea is a brilliant stroke of marketing. Not only does it give the band Tennis Pro an origin story of sorts but also it helped give them the exposure that they really needed to tell the world that they are here to shake it up.
“It’s about poking the bear,” reveals Pearson, “We want to get people to dance and to get them to get outside of their own little boring little box.”
In the real life shows, Japanese audiences do not often interact. Although this film shows the youth of today’s Japan totally interacting, the adults may not necessarily do the same. It’s done out of respect because in proper performances, everything is measured to the second. Once one band finishes, there’s very little time to tear down, do a sound check and set up for the second act and third performance for the night. In this film, up to four bands can be playing during the course of an evening.
Wherever Tennis Pro gets placed on the list, often near the end, they got some leeway to get some action going.
“We got the crowd to interact pretty well,” said Lowery, “I think the fun thing of being an American band playing in Japanese shows is that it gives them right to make noise and behave in ways that they wouldn’t ordinarily.”
For some viewers, they cannot help but want to Bebop or Doo-wop to this band’s style of 70’s surfer cum 50’s style rock and roll. There’s a hint of grunge and punk in their sound, but that all depends on the tune being heard at the time. The excellently done dream sequence in this movie is also their music video (titled “Kimberly“) and Pearson notes that it’s better understood within context of the film than seen as a standalone.
All of the scores featured in this film are composed by Tennis Pro, and their songs are infectiously catchy. This band also had a album titled, “Shimokita is Dead?” which actually charted in the CMJ top 100. The official soundtrack album, “Big in Japan,” has a total of 42 tracks to groove to. Perhaps they found the meaning of life while here?
To see Pearson play a classical moment on the cello and Drewery feeling out the blues on the guitar definitely show it. It’s these moments where they shine as talented musicians.
To wonder where this band will go next will no doubt create some new casual fans. But to look at what the music scene is like in Tokyo, this film offers some fascinating glimpses that’s not always known.
Ultimately, this film is about the brotherhood these three have. Through thick and thin, for better or worse, they have emerged in a struggle of musical politics to truly become the victors. That’s the game they are playing, and they are certainly professionals when it comes to emerging undefeated.
3½ Stars out of 5