Music documentaries are often as concerned with seismic political shifts as they are with their ostensible mission of chronicling the tribulations of a particular artist, group, or scene. The hardcore nihilism of The Decline of Western Civilization (1981), the Castro-governed Cuba of Buena Vista Social Club (1999), the dystopian 1970s Britain revisited in The Filth and the Fury (2000), and the sweeping vision of an America on the brink of implosion in The Doors: When You’re Strange (2009) all put creativity into context with musical endeavors shown to be reactions to the official forces that seek to control national ideologies. Lauren Knapp’s crowd-funded Live from UB follows this tradition but also charts new geographic territory with its exploration of the still relatively enclosed Mongolian rock movement. Shot throughout 2012 in the city of Ulaanbaatar, now home to around half of the nation’s 3 million citizens, this energetic and insightful documentary focuses on the development of ambitious indie four-piece Mohanik while providing an account of Mongolia’s history that further illustrates how rock music and politics are critically intertwined at times of social revolution.
The members of Mohanik prove to be an accessible entry point into the local scene with their tightly focused playing and easy-going manner. Having been introduced to rock music through such commercial US bands as Blink 182 and Linkin Park, they steadily developed their own sound, ultimately getting closer to their culture by experimenting with outside influences to create hits like “I Wish I Had a Horse”, which merges a classic rock vibe with Mongolian sentiment for a nomadic way of life. A point that is repeatedly made by Knapp’s subjects is that Mongolian rock acts are open to Western influences but want to make music that has a “Mongolian essence” with sounds that are reflective or the region’s rich traditions, not to mention its awe-inspiring landscapes and valleys. This could have been a study of globalization via a burgeoning music industry, but instead becomes something more complex as the main players seek to move with the times while maintaining immense respect for their heritage. For their second album, Mohanik decide to go beyond the professional confines of the studio to record in nature so that the power of the land will seep into their songs, necessitating a five-hour journey from Ulaanbaatar to the Amarbayasgalant Monastery where they ask permission before setting up their equipment.
Although we learn a lot about Mohanik’s evolution, the meat of Live from UB is arguably its take on the recent history of Mongolia via rock music with Knapp providing a concise sketch of its fascinating backstory since 1925, when the country entered a long period of Soviet-style communism during which period it was an isolated nation. As the members of Mohanik were born following the Democratic revolution of 1989, Knapp interviews representatives of earlier generations to establish how today’s young rockers can express themselves so freely. Musicians from earlier bands such as Soyol Erdene (whose lyrics were strictly controlled by Ministry of Culture in the 1970s) cite such influences as Led Zeppelin, Jim Morrison and The Rolling Stones, while recalling trading records and memorabilia at markets. Mongolian Parliament member Oyungerel Tsedevdamba recalls the ‘secret music’ that she listened to as a teenager, which included not only Western pop acts like Abba and Modern Talking but also underground Mongolian bands who addressed such issues as unemployment and disparity in living standards, thereby inspiring her to campaign for human rights. Although now a representative of the establishment, she still comes across as a true fan when enthusing about how she became politically motivated through songs that dared to question state authority.
Knapp juxtaposes news footage from the 1980s with contemporary Ulaanbaatar to show an increasingly vibrant city in which the youth of today are able to negotiate their national identity. As in other studies of Mongolia’s urbanisation, Knepp’s panoramic shots of the city show how close it is to nature with the surrounding grasslands still more emblematic of the country’s culture than its recent modernity.
In 2008, a Beatles monument was unveiled in Ulaanbaatar to commemorate the significance of rock and roll in Mongolia’s transition to democracy but Live from UB notes that the country still lacks the radio stations with knowledgeable DJs who can guide their listeners towards new bands. On the whole, though, Knapp has a positive take on the future of Mongolian rock which is supported by the thrilling music showcased here – earthy and exotic, tinged with psychedelia and truly spellbinding in its sense of place. Live from UB captures a unique scene on the verge of breaking out and, when the time comes for bands like Mohanik to emerge on the world stage, a follow-up will be more than welcome.
Live from UB was shown at the Asia House Film Festival 2016 on February 24.