EIFF Review – Talihina Sky: The Story of Kings of Leon

Talihina Sky is the first documentary to delve into the past of the Kings of Leon, something people have been apparently sceptical about up until now. I have to admit up front to being extremely unfamiliar with the Kings of Leon as a band beyond their bigger hits, and their back story in general, for no other reason than innocent ignorance. This lack of familiarity didn’t hinder the experience of watching this film, as, with other music docs this year, this is, first and foremost, a story-driven documentary and a standard music doc, second.

The backbone narrative of the film is their annual week-long family reunion in Talihina, Oklahoma. This underpins the parallel throughout the film of the stark contrast between their childhood to their current rock-star status. As this film opens at the reunion you are initially introduced to a multitude of their extended family from cousins and uncles to their grandfather and namesake of the band, Leon.

The main narrative is divided into three sections: the reunion in Talihina, candid footage of the band on tour, and their parents describing the chronology of their life and context of what was happening. That these different sections rarely, if ever, connect visually does give the impression that you’re watching someone change channel constantly, and is at first a very weird experience, especially as the style of each part is so different.

Within their family there are some incredible characters. Uncle Cleo is the highlight of the film, and serves as the antithesis to their devoutly religious relatives. Described by a member of the band as representing everything they were taught as children to understand as sin, he is incredibly fun to watch and could quite easily have been the film’s main focus.

Religion is a huge theme within the film and it is approached in a cleverly non-judgemental or sensationalist way. It could easily have either been played down or blown out of proportion, but instead the subject of the family’s devout religion is almost a character in itself. There are moments when Caleb’s confusion as to what his life has become are touched upon, from his ingrained personal assumption that he would become a preacher – and I’m relieved that this wasn’t turned into a story arc of the inner turmoil of the tortured artist but, instead, just highlights the bizarre contrast between what they perceived their life would be and what it is now.

Talihina Sky is a strange film, and one about which I left feeling extremely confused. As it sat with me afterwards I realised I liked it more and more. The resounding impression is how honest the film is, and how you are invited into experiencing the atmosphere of their home and the situation they grew up in. Allowing their family to speak truly independently is disjointing, especially as there are so few scenes in which the members of the band interact with them, forcing you to piece together missing parts, but this does prevent stifling scenes engineered for the sake of the film narrative.

The breadth of archival material and footage of them in the studio and on tour will be an absolute joy to Kings of Leon fans. One particularly interesting use is a present day performance being blended with archive from previous performances of the same song, and this is an extremely quick and effective way of showing their progression as performers and musicians. The only time I felt the film stepped over the mark into sensationalism was during a scene in which their live performances are intercut with archival footage of people speaking in tongues, which seems to be making a strange and counter-productive point to the link between their past lives as preacher’s sons and modern day performers.

The film culminates in the two scenes which are by far the strongest moments in the film: an extremely open and insightful interview with Caleb and the band playing a song acoustically. The interview is raw and messy–an extremely candid late-night conversation in which Caleb opens up to his experience of confusion and feelings of guilt about his past and getting past the rebellion of leaving that world and, later, finding some resolution between the two. Throughout the film, beyond the comparison between past and present, the other extreme seems to be the attitude of the family remaining as humble as they have always been despite the enormous success of the younger family members, and the morphed rock star attitudes that the band seem to habitually adopt. This final scene brings both together and the honesty of Caleb’s interview, combined with the stripped down performance, brings the film full circle to a place in which you feel the real theme of the film, which seems to be the conflict of a life of two extremes and how to find a way to handle both.

Talihina Sky is having its European Premiere at the Edinburgh Film Festival on June 25 at 20.30. It will also be simultaneously screened the throughout the U.K. with a live Skype Q&A afterwards. Details are here and the trailer is below.