In his third feature, filmmaker Einari Paakkanen turns his attention to the phenomenon of Finnish karaoke and its capacity to bring disparate people together. Karaoke Paradise is a charming, insightful and often moving study of normal people’s lives through the medium of belting out great tunes.
Throughout the film we follow a collection of people with little in common and who do not know each other, but who each find tremendous self expression in singing to crowds of strangers. Toni is a quiet young man with the long hair of Bruce Dickinson and the gentle demeanour of Neil Young; Elina has Parkinson’s disease and lives to perform for people; middle-aged single father Karl, permanently decked out in a high-vis jacket, is looking for love in all the wrong places, while Laura uses karaoke to come to terms with the death of her child.
The figure that connects these people is Evi the touring karaoke troubadour, travelling from town to town with her song machine and microphones. Evi is exactly as one would imagine such a woman: advancing in years and diminutive in stature, she commands a room with her road-weary warmth and compassionate presence. Halfway through the film she tells us that as a young woman she wanted to train as a counsellor but couldn’t afford the tuition. There’s a sense of melancholy, perpetually on the road and exhausted as she is, to Evi’s recollection, save for her suggestion that in the end she achieved her dream of helping people.
In one sense it’s about facilitating self expression, or of the pure human pleasure of singing along to cracking tunes. But there’s something deeper going on, too. It’s surprising and often moving to see just how much karaoke acts as such a powerful vector for people’s trauma and pain, from the widowed guy that Evi hugs at the bar after he breaks down, to Laura – whose daughter died as an infant – finding the only way through her grief with singing.
Elina, Toni and Karl provide offer moments of levity too; Toni and Elina especially are delightful in the ways that karaoke empowers them to be outside of their everyday selves. Elina, whose mobility is limited, becomes a whirling dervish with a microphone in her hand while Toni’s wry smile grows into an enormous grin as he wins his crowd over. Karl, on the other hand is simply the perfect picture of an awkward, lovable dad.
Perpetually embarrassing his daughter with ill-advised chats about the facts of life, he is desperate to find love but is paralysed by an adorable cluelessness. In a stand out scene, Karl enlists his daughter to choose between two going-out outfits, both of which are near-identical high-vis work jackets. Paakkanen shoots his film with a utilitarian directness, letting the footage speak for itself and allowing the texture of his subjects’ lives unfold organically. The result is charming, humane and more than a little catchy.