January 21, 2012

Turn It Up to 11: The Rise of Galaxy Express and the Ruin That's Tobacco Juice

This movie belongs to the losers. Which isn't to say that that anyone who watches the rockumentary Turn It Up to 11 will think that Tobacco Juice, the talented punk outfit constantly sabotaging its opportunities, is a better band than the infinitely more successful Galaxy Express. They're not. There's a reason why Galaxy Express went from being a house band in a small club in Incheon to winning the Best Rock Album of the Year for Noise on Fire at the Korean Music Awards in 2009. They look better, sound better, and rock a hell of a lot harder than Tobacco Juice. It makes sense that they'd be the ones to make it big. If someone told you that national sales of guitars shot up by 16% after Tobacoo Juice first appeared on television, you'd roll your eyes. When the same is said about Galaxy Express, you don't doubt it for a second.

Even so, your heart goes out to Tobacco Juice because there's something about the "almost made it" story that feels a lot more familiar, a lot more human, than the "breakthrough into fame and fortune" story that's being told right alongside it. The broken dream is the common dream. Reality isn't glamorous. Throughout Turn It Up to 11, Tobacco Juice's smaller successes feel a lot more poignant if a lot less exciting. Consider the closing moments of their CD release party (which takes place at the Ruby Salon nightclub that also launched Galaxy Express) which attracts just 100 people. At the concert's end, the group's lead singer and inveterate drunk Kwon Ki-wook bows down and rests his head on the floor of the stage where he bursts into tears. That's really an astonishing reminder of how much it takes from your soul to even be a failure in the world's eyes. Shortly after that, the film flashes back to Tobacco Juice recording a secret track for their CD, a private performance that may be the most heartfelt bit of singing in the pic. You wish Kwon and his bandmates the best. Galaxy Express doesn't need your sympathy!

The irony is that the film, which presents the guys of Tobacco Juice as sloppy, lazy and immature (by their own admission), is directed and shot by the group's own drummer, the nearly invisible Baek Seung-hwa. Given how uncomfortable these guys often look on camera, you get the feeling that they know full well that Baek isn't the type to flatter them or make them look any better than they actually are. If anything, he's cultivating their image as rejects. "The evil king of losers," producer and Ruby Salon owner Lee Gyu-young says of the band. Hey, if you can't rule the world, aim for something smaller. Your cult following today could turn into millions tomorrow.

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