There is perhaps no band whose backstory has garnered as much attention as the [artist id=”1233888″]Kings of Leon[/artist], and with good reason. They are, after all, the prodigal preacher’s sons (and nephew) who tapped into the rebellious power of rock and roll and rose from the backwoods to the big stage, a journey that — aside from all the sex and drugs and mustaches — is practically ripped from American folklore.
So it would seem almost inevitable that their rise would someday be chronicled in a feature film, one that imbues their career with the spirit of the Holy Ghost and doesn’t skimp on the particulars of all that sex and drugs (and ’staches). And here it is: “Talihina Sky: The Story of Kings of Leon,” a far-reaching documentary that premiered Thursday night at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York.
Directed by longtime Kings friend Stephen Mitchell, produced by Casey McGrath and Phear Creative (and executive-produced by the band itself), “Talihina” is a rock doc in the purest sense of the phrase: full of unedited, unwinding (and frequently un-sober) interviews with the Followill boys (frontman Caleb’s bleary-eyed, Jameson-and-marijuana soaked sitdown is a real doozy); tour-bus shouting matches; honest, teary conversations with their family members and friends and, of course, a whole lot of grainy, slightly embarrassing VHS footage of the Kings as kids. It certainly doesn’t hold anything back.
And while, at times, it strays a little too close to deifying the band (or at least their voyage to the top of the charts), it strips away everything you’ve probably read about them, and, in the process, provides the clearest glimpse to date into what makes them tick. In that regard, the film is not only a success, but one of the most compelling music documentaries you’ll ever see.
Because no matter how hard the media tries to romanticize their early years, “Talihina” doesn’t. We learn that brothers Caleb, Nathan and Jared grew up poor, the children of a preacher for whom money was an afterthought and a mother who believed in nothing more than the power of religion. We learn that the boys hated all of those facts, that they suffered when their parents divorced and that they felt betrayed when they learned that their father — the man they viewed as an infallible totem of morality — was just another man, one who had demons of his own.
To combat that, they turned to their extensive family — no less than six uncles are interviewed in the film, some of whom may not even be their uncles at all — and the solace of annual retreats in Talihina, Oklahoma … long, boozy weekends filled with horseshoe games and crawfish grabbing in ruddy creeks. In the grand American tradition, this is where they learned to be men, or at least learned to approximate what they felt a man should be.
Of course, they also found solace in recreational drug use and Pixies records and, from there, the roots of the band took hold. We learn very little about their formation, instead, we’re quickly whisked away to England, where the Kings became overnight sensations (and media curio cases), partying hard, sleeping around and, really, also learning how to be men.
That duality makes up the core of not just the film, but the band itself. On one hand, the Kings have never left their roots behind, as evidenced by footage of them attending later Talihina weekends, mixing it up with shirtless cousins and sagging uncles, but on the other, they seem driven to distance themselves from their past. Watching footage of the band recording their breakthrough Only By the Night album, you can’t help but notice just how hard they’re trying to become the hugest rock band on the planet, and in interviews throughout the film, the Kings talk about their past in reverent, yet weary, tones.
And yet, they can never escape their history, no matter how hard they try. In a lot of ways, that struggle is what ultimately makes the film so compelling … and what makes you understand the Kings of Leon just a little bit more. They’re down-home boys who are seemingly never home, rock stars whose sentiments have moved millions, despite the fact those sentiments are derived from a place whose population is just 1,200. They have toured the world and lived the life and yet, whether they want to or not, they are eternally drawn back to Talihina. So, really, they’re not folk heroes (or, as Caleb jokes, “I’m not Captain America”), they’re just small-town kids who inexplicably made it big, boys forced to become men because life conspired to make them so, brothers eternally trying to escape the shadow of their parents. They’re just like you or I, if you think about it.
Did you check out the Kings’ documentary? Share your reviews in the comments!
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