The big surprise of Fatih Akin's 2004 ``Head-On" (well, one of the many big surprises) was its soundtrack. The movie was about a pair of suicidal Turkish-Germans, doomed in love. The music was a corresponding volcanic stew of English rock and American soul, with a Turkish orchestra serving as a kind of Greek chorus wailing on the banks of the Bosporus.
After production, one of the musicians, a German bassist named Alexander Hacke, traveled east to record with a handful of singers and bands, and Akin filmed his trip. The result is ``Crossing the Bridge: The Sound of Istanbul," a pleasing, 90-minute sampler of the modern Istanbul sound, with a handful of thrilling performances and snippets of history.
Hacke seems to have in mind a kind of itinerant ``Buena Vista Social Club." He races around the city with an elaborate portable recording studio that he can set up on boats and in bathhouses. As a guide, he's amiable if unkempt. But like ``Social Club" director Wim Wenders, the bassist often sounds silly when he takes to swoony anthropologizing (``I wanted to find the black music of Istanbul," he says at one point.). While we're grateful that he's our passport east, almost instantly we want less of his narration and more music -- and not the sax-driven stuff with the techno pulse that plays for most of the first 10 minutes.
Eventually, Akin settles on a band to reel us in: Duman , a grungy outfit with a blistering punk sheen. Then it's on to Replikas, an even more primal-sounding quartet. Someone in the film points out that modern Istanbul, at its core, is a rock 'n' roll city. It seems true; both Duman and Replikas would have fit nicely in early '90s Seattle.
There's a moving performance from Sezen Aksu, a national superstar whose love songs and odes to Istanbul seem to have provided potent memories to a lot of the youngsters in ``Crossing the Bridge." But Aksu isn't a pure nostalgia artist. She emotes deep historic pain. What you come to realize about Turkish music is how thematically conflicted a lot of it is. The past is ever present. Sometimes that's a healing thing. Often it's a source of anger.
For instance, the electrifying rapper Ceza has been called the Turkish Public Enemy for his call-it-as-I-see-it approach to hip-hop. You get the comparison. Stylistically, however, his rhymes are as intricate and brash as Eminem's, and as fast as Twista's, only more clever and more intense. He seems utterly possessed when he raps. No one charges up this film quite the way he does. Well, the amazing clarinetist and bandleader Selim Sesler comes close. His gypsy roots music was featured in ``Head-On" -- he guided the orchestra on the Bosporus.
A lot of the younger acts in the film happily acknowledge that their artistic viability wouldn't be possible without the previous generation. Akin tracks down national heroes like the irreverent rock star Erkin Koray and the screen legend Orhan Gencebay, who recorded albums playing the saz, a giraffe-necked lute, and who might be sexier now than in his creative prime.
Ultimately, ``Crossing the Bridge" is a hopeful document of a country's pride and its political and cultural evolution. Akin and Hacke find artists whose songs are about the here and now, and the movie is largely free of a self-conscious East vs. West debate. As more than one person notes, there's no such contrast. Music is music.
Wesley Morris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.