By Mark Zhuravsky | The Playlist September 7, 2011 at 8:07AM
For a film that appears to have unfettered access to the band Kings of Leon, Stephen C. Mitchell's "Talihina Sky: The Story of Kings of Leon" offers little cohesive insight into either the band or the forces that shaped the group and their music. The members of Kings of Leon -- brothers Caleb, Nathan, and Jared Followill, along with their cousin Matthew -- were first catapulted into the public eye in the U.K., and mainstream American success wouldn't come until 2008's Only by the Night. Mitchell's documentary seems to have been made at some point during those key years, and zeroes in on a Talihina, Oklahoma family reunion (the band members hail from Mt. Juliet, Tennessee).
A smart decision to stray away from the now-tired focus on the band as they acclimate to sudden wealth and world travels, Mitchell adopts a fly on the wall approach, surveying the Followill clan, the men and women who raised the boys and instilled a genuine fear of God in the foursome. Unfortunately, the film never establishes a narrative of sorts, simply stringing together footage and relying on overblown intercutting between people enraptured by prayer and the band making music. The story of a former Pentecostal revival preacher's sons struggling with secular passions and temptations, especially as the band's fanbase grows ever larger, is fascinating. But Mitchell balks at commentary, either in his own voice or that of the band members -- aside from a final scene featuring Caleb reflecting on the band's rise to the top, nothing registers as especially significant.
There's plenty of reunion footage featuring the Kings, now world-weary after a travel montage, returning to the backwoods that spawned in them a desire to get away. That means catching crawdads in a post-apocalyptic looking watering hole and facing off in an eerie nighttime horseshoe tournament. Leaving poverty behind is a strong enough motivation, compounded by a father who'd slipped into alcoholism, forced to give up revival preaching, work that wasn't exactly keeping the family afloat. Looking at the Followill family and friends, a city-slicker like this author feels so little in common -- and yet the music of the band is irrevocably tied into their roots.
Father Ivan and mother Betty-Ann weigh in with recollections of early family life, raised in a strictly religious family that was always on the road as Ivan plied his preaching trade around the country, the Kings of Leon appears sometimes to be an extension of the close-knit clan, all the more obvious since the band consists of three brothers and a cousin. The boys don't tend to expound much on how their faith shapes the music or whether the challenges of the secular world sometimes necessitate a retreat to the environment they grew up in. We are presented with moments of minor drug abuse (mostly weed) as a retort, a tentative rebellion perhaps, but since no one in the band ever steps up to explain how they feel about partaking in both the readily available drugs and casual sex outside of marriage, it's up to us to make a judgment call, if we're willing.
The infighting that is now plaguing the band (and led them to cancel the rest of their U.S. tour this summer) stands out in several tense scenes, one shot by one of the band members as he unleashes a tirade at Caleb. Frustratingly, aside from stand offs and voices rising above room level, no real developments emerge, either showing the band overcoming their troubles or collapsing under their weight. The Kings of Leon move through the space of the film without any aim, which is perfectly fine when you have an idea where the film is going -- treating an audience to down-home footage interspersed with concert footage is hardly sufficient, unless you're a hardcore fan and these images are only a part of getting to know the group. For a casual observer, familiar with the band's music but not their background, "Talihina Sky: The Story of Kings of Leon" is bound to partly disappoint with its scattershot style. This unique group of men facing down an uncertain road ahead and past values they struggle not to contradict deserves better. [C+]
"Talihina Sky: A Story Of Kings Of Leon" is now airing on Showtime and Showtime 2.