Army of Lovers in the Holy Land
(Israel, 65 min.)
Dir. Asaf Galay
In 1993, I wandered into a Tel Aviv record store and was immediately drawn to an album cover festooned with four flamboyant characters. They were dressed in what appeared to be S&M-themed funereal garb while a giant Star of David flag loomed in the background. The 12” single included various versions of the song ‘Israelism,’ including mixes cheekily named “Kibbutznikblitzkrieg” and “Goldcalfhorahhorror.” For decades, I knew nothing specific about this band or its impact, yet thanks to Asaf Galay’s brief but compelling film, Army of Lovers in the Holy Land, I’m finally gifted some insight into my lucky find.
This film about the Swedish band Army of Lovers is far from a pure music biography. It focusses primarily upon band member Jean-Pierre Barda as he migrates from his home in Sweden to Tel Aviv. Eschewing the trappings of his fame and fortune, he finds himself in a new and more austere life in the Middle East. In his humble apartment, there is nothing to evoke his on-stage presence. The bare white walls and simple furnishings are a stark contrast to his colourful onstage presence.
Interviewed alongside bandmates Alexander Bard and Dominika Peczynski, the three musicians provide humorous recollections of their times dominating the airwaves with their ribald and shocking videos. From the outset, they make it clear that they’re neither singers nor musicians. They instead perform to prerecorded tracks with the occasional spoken interludes, allowing them to concentrate almost entirely on their pansexual imagery. All three are a delight and speak with firm awareness of the strange nature of their fame. It’s easy to see how their charisma alone could drive them to international pop success at a time when a band’s “look” trumped considerations of musical aptitude.
“Israelism,” based around the Jewish folksong “Hevenu Shalom Aleichem,” provided their most controversial and catchy hit. It was fascinating to see the consternation of international press with the video’s debut for this author that thought he’d bought a novelty record that no one cared about. (This is a band essentially unknown on this side of the Atlantic, which makes the film all the more worthwhile for North American audiences.) Particularly fascinating are the nuanced and insightful points made by Barda on contemporaneous Israeli television news programs, showing that beyond the campy exterior these band members were fully self-aware of the manifestation of their art.
The film often cuts back to Barda, and we witness moments from his initial immigration cut to conversations that take place with him in a resplendent, corseted outfit as he lounges lasciviously on a chaise. The unapologetically indulgent nature of his life with the band proves fascinating as it contrasts with his new mode of austerity.
The film makes connections easy to find between Army of Lovers’ shtick and other party-oriented performers, from the lip-syncing mega-hits by Fran Farian’s Boney-M and Milli Vanilli projects, to the brash party music of the B52s or Aqua. The colourful costumes and broad choreography, as well as their Swedish dance music roots, have an obvious connection with ABBA—the band even covered their compatriot’s song “Hasta Mañana” on a tribute album. While the members of ABBA were masters of their musical craft, Army of Lovers take a different tack, owing in many ways more to the well-established practice of drag show lip-sync and stage presence than to ABBA’s legendary pop offerings.
For those seeking a well-rounded look at the rise and fall of the band, they’re bound to be disappointed. Key elements, such as the fate of founding member Camilla Henemark, who left the band in 1991 and returned in 1995, are almost entirely ignored. More time is spent worrying about watching Barda dole out local hummus than delving into the band’s musical output. However, there’s a welcome interview with Camilla Thulin who built costumes for the band, and ample frank discussions about how the band’s evocative and sexualized image was integral to its output.
The result is a surprisingly intimate and moving portrait of Barda, a superficial yet fun look at the history of the band, a warm and engaging look at how the members interact, and a sympathetic look at the diversity of Israeli society and the draw of the community. In just over an hour running, Galay manages to balance these myriad elements. While a traditional feature-length doc may have spent more time diving into various other facets, the benefit is that the film never overstays its welcome.
The same thing that drew me to that album cover decades ago captivated me with this documentary. It’s near impossible not to be completely swayed by Barda’s intense charisma. It proved enlightening to see the intelligence behind an act that, superficially, feels nothing more than sexualized silliness. While the doc, somewhat frustratingly, glosses over those elements of Army of Lovers’ story, the film is ultimately both sweet and savvy—a dash of pop fun with an undercurrent of serious soul searching. Army of Lovers in the Holy Land has all the frivolity you may expect, yet what’s most welcome is the more profound and humanistic elements that are effectively integrated in ways that surprise as much as they please.
Army of Lovers in the Holy Land screens at the Toronto Jewish Film Festival October 30-31.