Eugene Hütz is a charlatan of the best kind. He embodies many of the romantic notions people tend to have about musicians, artists and Roma people. He’s a vagabond, a restless spirit, a world-traveller, with an ear for a sound, an innate ability to pick out the best bits and pieces of one folk tradition and meld it into his own sound, his own world. He is entirely authentic and real in his love and obsession for music (and it comes through in his Gogol Bordello records), and yet there is that little undercurrent of inauthenticity about him, the hint of it all being a performance, an act: Eugene Hütz as some kind of warped version of Yevheniy Aleksandrovich Nikolayev-Simonov. It’s the same push-and-pull between persona and person that makes figures such as Johnny Cash, David Bowie, and Nick Cave so compelling, and indeed the recent Nick Cave documentary 20,000 Days on Earth is a wonderful evocation and dissection of that dividing line.
Czech-born Pavla Fleisher’s documentary on Eugene Hütz, The Pied Piper of Hützovina also delves into this grey area between the persona and the person; although it’s not really a biography on the man, but rather the music that has inspired him. It’s also a tale of unrequited romance: starting with a drunken car-ride in which Fleisher and Hütz are recording themselves drunkenly singing together, Fleisher’s narration admits to her romantic feelings for the singer. We find out that she proposed this film not just as a documentary but also as an excuse to spend more time with him, on a trip through Eastern Europe as Eugene went to collect and research the Roma music which he holds so dear to his heart.
In early scenes of the film, we see Eugene travelling around the Karpaty region on the South-Western border of Ukraine, entering various Roma settlements, researching and playing music alongside the Roma. It’s interesting to watch Eugene negotiate these places; though his grandmother is Romani, Eugene has often faced accusations of inauthenticity from parts of the Roma community. He is clearly aware of it, and constantly defers to it: for him it is most important to give these people a voice that, in most cases, they have never had. For some, it may well be that Eugene is the first outsider who ever listened to them.
Even watching without subtitles (my Serbian is just about good enough that through association I could understand the gist of what was being said in Russian and Ukrainian), one can clearly see the hurt in Eugene when he vision of Roma music rejected by the acclaimed director of a Roma theatre in Kiev. Yet, he dusts himself off. He understands why his music does not agree with everyone, and the film presses forward to Moscow, and then onwards all the way to Siberia to meet Sasha Kolpakov, a legendary Romani guitarist who is an idol of Eugene’s, and also one who reciprocates his admiration.
Eugene’s reaction to playing with Kolpakov is that of a giddy overexcited puppy. It hits at the heart of what Eugene Hütz is about: it’s always all about the music, first and foremost, and it’s a completely heedless, all-empowering love too. Borders, constraints, walls. None of these are capable of stopping Eugene in his quest for beautiful sounds, for new experiences, for new ideas. In the meantime, it does lead to other problems: Pavla is clearly hurt by Eugene’s disdain towards her evident romantic attachment and she begins to get the sense that she’s being taken on a ride. When we are finally introduced to Eugene’s family in Kiev—including his Roma grandmother—some of the persona is stripped away. No longer is he the arrogant, vagabond rockstar, but just another teen from Ukraine, who laughs and drinks along with his uncle and gets mildly frustrated at the more senile questions from his grandmother.
The Pied Piper of Hützovina is a fascinating diary of a unique character. Perhaps its most poignant moment comes towards the end, when Pavla finally has the chance to see Gogol Bordello live (sidenote: if you haven’t, you absolutely must). She has an epiphany, finally coming to understand the purpose of Eugene Hütz and Gogol Bordello. “Eugene did not belong to me, he belonged up there, to everybody”, she says. A born performer, it’s easy to forget that underneath the adulation he receives nightly and his oft-romanticised media image, is a man who just really fucking likes good music. And long may he stay that way.