Musical comedies are so tough to pull off that hardly anyone tries anymore. Part of the reason "The Blues Brothers" has maintained its appeal over the years is that it fuses numerous successful ingredients into a satisfying whole: It hits the right comedic beats along with musical ones, often simultaneously. Such an outlandishly entertaining package hardly correlates with rigid studio formulas, which is why the musical comedy has migrated to the indie sector. Last fall, "Brooklyn Brothers Beat the Best" followed a trio of musicians on an inoffensively familiar road trip, but "The History of Future Folk" (which opens in Los Angeles this week, but has already been released in New York and various digital platforms) does a greater service to this under-appreciated form by taking it to a new level of innovation. It's the first feel-good hipster alien invasion musical comedy.
"The History of Future Folk," a microbudget Brooklyn-set adventure co-directed by J. Anderson Mitchell and Jeremy Kipp Walker, works so well partly because it carries the energy of the real musicians featured in it. Stars Nils d'Aulaire and Jay Klaitz have formed the bluegrass duo Future Folk for roughly a decade, and their comfort with their goofy stage personas as finger-picking extraterrestrial invaders holds the movie's ridiculous premise together, as does a compelling plot that never completely devolves into parody. Or, rather, it takes the ridiculous premise very seriously.
Despite their silly characters, the movie presents a fairly straightforward sci-fi story in which the far-off planet Hondo, facing imminent extinction by way of an incoming comet, sends its trenchant General Trius (d'Aulaire) to wipe out Earthlings with a deadly virus so his fellow Hondonians can take over the planet. Instead, Trius falls in love with Earth's music, settles down with a wife and kid, adopts the bland alter ego Bill, and spends his evenings singing narcissistic songs about his past to bored Brooklynites at the grimy Williamsburg pub Trash Bar. The arrival of clumsy assassin Kevin (Klaitz), sent to Earth from Hondo to kill Bill and let loose the virus himself, gives Bill the opportunity to enlist a partner in crime. Hoping to keep his stable life with his wife Holly (Julie Ann Emery) and young daughter Wren (Onata Aprile, recently seen in "What Maisie Knew"), Bill plans to launch a rocket from Earth to stop the comet.
The filmmakers position this legitimate sci-fi backdrop against a slapstick narrative that gives Bill an excuse to school Kevin in the ways of bluegrass (strapping him to a chair and subjecting the other man to a medley of Earthly tunes) and before long they've joined forces onstage for a show-stopping song about our planet's lack of space worms. The sweet, catchy melodies in "Furture Folk" celebrate the sincerity lurking beneath the ironic facade of Brooklyn's scrappier bohemian crowds. But the characters are so well drawn that it's easy to get drawn into the high stakes plot as well.
With "Man of Steel" right around the corner, moviegoers have already been subjected to a publicity campaign millions of dollars strong. But "The History of Future Folk" offers a similar fantasy of humanoids sent to Earth who decide to protect it, only here it's told with an entirely approachable combination of wit and charm. I'll gladly eat my words if "Man of Steel" offers much in the way of either ingredient, but in the meantime, this is the alien invasion story of the summer. Like the hordes of fans the musicians amass by the third act, "Future Folk" viewers may feel swept up in the cause of its zany protagonists. When Bill freaks out about the police on their tail, Kevin shoots back, "lighten up." It's a relief to experience a movie so willing to shrug off its own dramas in the name of fun.
"Future Folk" also looks ahead to another strong example of the musical comedy scheduled for release later this year. Joel and Ethan Coen's Cannes-acclaimed "Inside Llewyn Davis," which tracks the marginalized role of folk music in American society on the brink of Bob Dylan's fame, puts its historical narrative in the context of its titular struggling musician. Unofficially a prequel to "Future Folk," the Coens' movie contains its own lively mixture of original tunes in a more grounded narrative. "Future Folk" catches up with the scrappy music scene found in "Llewyn Davis" some 50 years down the line and finds that it's still essentially a form of therapy for frustrated loners. In this case, they just happen to come from a little farther away. Smart in spite of its irreverence, "Future Folk" is the weirdest, most enjoyable fusion of genres you'll see this year.
Yet the biggest challenge that faces "Future Folk" is the same reason behind its existence. The lo-fi production values stand out in many scenes; after all, this is a movie that features people running around with upside down buckets on their heads (and in one sequence a pretty obvious rubber suit). The personalities, however, transcend these limitations. D'Aulaire makes an entirely likable everyman, but the portly, mustachioed Klaitz stands out for his bumbling mannerisms -- he's the Costello to D'Aulaire's Abbott. One scene that finds Klaitz singing a Spanish ballad to the woman cop he paralyzes in an ill-conceived attempt at seduction stands out for the sheer lunacy of the concept.
Add to that a skillfully edited sequence that cuts between a tango dance and two aliens battling for Earth's future, in addition to the tendency for Bill and Kevin to greet each other with the jubilant expression of their home planet's name ("Hondo!"), and an instant quote-worthy cult classic is born. "Future Folk" lacks the scale and marketing budget of countless other movies released this year, but you'd be hard-pressed to find a better example of unadulterated escapism in which the craftsmanship lies not in visual polish but the universal appeal of a catchy tune.
Criticwire grade: A-