Nirvanna the Band the Show (Viceland Series)

26 May

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Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

As I’ve said before on this blog, I’m particularly fond of filmmaker Matt Johnson’s work. “The Dirties” is a film that has really grown on me with time (and repeated viewings), and I thoroughly enjoyed his film last year, “Operation Avalanche.” Johnson’s trademark style is “faux-documentary” done in guerilla fashion. (He goes in, he shoots a scene, he gets out, no matter who’s an actor or not—is it real or staged? He lets you decide.) This style of filmmaking suits him well with his new web series “Nirvanna the Band the Show,” made for Viceland.

“The Dirties” and “Operation Avalanche” are essentially dramatic feature films laced with comedic flavoring. But “Nirvanna the Band the Show” is straight-up comedic. In fact, I may just stop calling this “faux-documentary” and start calling it “mockumentary,” since that’s basically what this is. Nothing is to be taken seriously in the slightest, movie references that took up most of the dialogue for “The Dirties” are replaced with head-on lampoons of popular movies, and it’s easier to make the comparison to something like “Borat” with this series than it is to compare Johnson’s feature films to even a Christopher Guest mockumentary.

The basic premise of the 8-episode 22-minute-per-episode “Nirvanna the Band the Show” is about Matt Johnson and Jay McCarrol (who both created the series and play “themselves”; another staple of Johnson’s work) as two Toronto musicians who desperately want to perform a gig at the Rivoli. That’s the groundwork for the entire series, which leads to all kinds of hijinks as Matt tries everything he can think of to get this one gig. This includes—sneaking an ad in a local newspaper, building their own Christmas parade float, sneaking a film into the Sundance Film Festival, and even taking a sick child from a hospital in order to befriend him and, in return, get him to wish to the Make-a-Wish Foundation to have Matt and Jay perform at the Rivoli. And if you think that’s strange, just wait until the final episode…

It’s all outrageous, completely ridiculous, and just flat-out funny all the way through from the first episode to the eighth. It’s a lot of fun to watch for many reasons, but one of the main ones, for me at least, was I kept wondering how Johnson was going to pull off each comedic set piece, only to be pleasantly surprised that he actually can. He pulled them off in ways I didn’t expect. And the best part—Johnson pulls them off with absolute effort, putting his all into everything he’s got.

As with Johnson’s previous works, he uses the documentary-style approach to improvise with a plot detail in mind. With lapel mikes and sometimes-hidden cameramen, he and Jay out to the streets of Toronto to act out the situations that need to be in the episode and mix them with natural reactions of unsuspecting bystanders who can’t believe what these two nuts are saying or doing. Some of these “bystanders” are actors in on it, but even if you know that, it’s still very funny to watch their reactions to all this.

Much of the comedy in the essentially-dramatic “The Dirties” came from Johnson’s character and how much of a movie buff he is, constantly making reference after reference to whatever movie he can think of (which led to the film’s best sight gag—the choice of fonts for the end credits, which I won’t give away here). For “Nirvanna the Band the Show,” Johnson takes that up a notch not by merely referencing the movies but paying pure homage to them. In the first episode, there are numerous allusions to “Jurassic Park” (including a very funny revelation as to why Samuel L. Jackson’s character is so calm—something I hadn’t even thought of before!). In another episode, which is Christmas-related, “Home Alone” is the subject of satire. In another episode, sitcoms are spoofed, with a drastic situation and a race to make things right again (and the opening credits are even done in the style of ‘80s sitcom “Growing Pains”—I almost died laughing at that part). In another episode, Matt is temporarily blind in an episode that began with opening credits that are remarkably similar to Netflix’s “Daredevil” series, and…well, you can probably guess what happens later. And so on.

Oh, and how is Matt blinded in this episode? He watches the “Star Wars” movies for the first time and is so captivated by them that he sits too close to the TV screen. That is hilariously unfortunate…as is what happens when he and Jay go to the premiere showing of “The Force Awakens.”

My favorite episode is the fifth, which takes place in Park City, Utah, home of the Sundance Film Festival, where “Operation Avalanche” premiered. In this one, Matt makes a short film set in a high school and is quickly thrown out (why do I get the feeling this is how “The Dirties” was really made?), but he gets enough footage to sneak a film into Sundance and gain attention for it. (Oh, and the short film is called “Operation Avalanche.”) Johnson and co. used their Sundance opportunity to make an episode out of whatever they could, and I highly respect them for it.

It took some time for me to get used to Jay McCarrol (who composes music for Johnson’s works) as his comedic foil, because I’m so used to seeing Owen Williams in that role in the features. But he held his own well here, and it’s nice to see him on piano and scoring the scenes in the Nirvanna the Band studio as Matt is mentioning idea after idea—you can tell he has passion in his craft just as Johnson has passion in his as well.

I really enjoyed “Nirvanna the Band the Show” and it only furthered my admiration for Matt Johnson as a filmmaker. He’s not afraid to take chances or try new things with his style, and it turns out he’s very good at it. Once again, I can’t wait to see what he comes up with next.

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