Saturday, June 27, 2020

Oxford Virtual ’20: Army of Lovers in the Holy Land

Tel Aviv is home to one of the largest Pride celebrations outside of the West and is widely recognized as one of the most LGBTQ-friendly destination cities in the world. It also happens to be in Israel. All of these reasons make the Mediterranean city feel like home to Jean-Pierre Barda. Documentarian Asaf Galay follows the “lead vocalist” of Swedish disco-dance band Army of Lovers as he makes Aliyah and happily settles in Israel during the relatively short (just over an hour) but entertaining film Army of Lovers in the Holy Land, which screens during the Oxford Virtual Film Festival.

Barda and his Army of Lovers bandmates Alexander Bard (the founder) and Dominika Peczynski are the first to gleefully admit they do not play instruments and never really even performed their own vocals. For them, the band is really about dramatic stagecraft, elaborate (and risqué) costumes, and fab hair and makeup. The latter was also Barda’s responsibility. For a while, the band was positioned as the natural successors to ABBA and they nearly reached that level of popularity in Continental Europe (but fell considerably shorter in the US and UK).

Raised in Sweden by his naturalized French-Algerian parents, Barda initially held conflicted attitudes towards his Jewish faith and heritage. However, an Israeli tour provided a new, positive context to relate to his Jewishness. He seemed like he was “home,” so he stayed.

Of course, it is not exactly that easy, but Israel does not disappoint. Galay’s doc nicely showcases the country’s tolerance, while revisiting some of the band’s most outrageous greatest hits. In addition to Barda, Bard and Peczynski appear throughout the film, discussing their shared history and visiting Barda in Tel Aviv. Real fans will wonder about the two other women who were members of Army of Lovers at various times, because they go conspicuously unmentioned by name. Oh well, that’s what happens when you leave a hit band.

Musically, Monk and Coltrane are more our style, but we still appreciate Barda and his comrade’s theatricality and their sly sense of humor. There is a lot of laughter in this documentary that will broaden its appeal beyond the band’s fan base. Yet, it also serves an important role educating viewers regarding the progressive freedom of Israeli society. Very highly recommended, Army of Lovers in the Holy Land screens (online) as part of the Oxford Virtual Film Festival (6/26-7/2).