What price would you pay for fame? A down on his luck rockabilly guitarist asks himself just this question when faced with the offer of fantastic success beyond all his wildest dreams at the small cost of sacrificing some friends to the musical gods. Rest assured, Ghostroads: A Japanese Rock’n’Roll Ghost Story (ゴーストロード) isn’t waxing metaphorical on the price of success or the pitfalls of the music business so much as it is riffing on B-movie rock and roll horror. Everything about Ghostroads is retro from the rockabilly scene setting to the shooting style and musical cues but it’s all done with such charm and good humour that it’s near impossible to resist the film’s old fashioned appeal.
The Screaming Telstars are, as the narrator tells us, a bit “crap” and their lead singer, Tony (Mr. Pan), is perhaps not as committed to the band as he once was. Fellow band members remain exasperated by Tony’s often hilariously late arrival at rehearsal sessions while the producer and tech guy cringe at his terrible, lazy playing. Nevertheless, Tony vows to pull it together in time for the gig and, to be fair, he usually does. This time, however, things take a turn for the worse when Tony’s absent minded guitar frenzy proves too much for his ancient amp. The venue they’re supposed to play the next day doesn’t have house amps so Tony will need to sort himself out with a new one or risk cancelling.
Tony also has no money so makes the decision to stop into a tiny old fashioned second hand musical equipment store in a back alley to look for a vintage amp to add to his collection. Despite the warnings of the shop assistant (Taka Shin-Okubo) who acts more like the wise monk in a kung fu film than a serious businessman, Tony is strangely drawn to one amp in particular. Seeing Tony won’t be dissuaded, the man behind the counter lets him have it for free on the condition that it’s his responsibility now and whatever happens with it, he can’t bring it back.
This is largely because the amp comes with a lodger or as he calls himself, an “amperition”. Peanut Butter (Darrell Harris) is a smooth American blues singer who has been imprisoned in his amp so long he’s quite desperate to impart some musical wisdom to a struggling rock star like Tony, but his advice comes at a price.
Tony’s playing improves under the tutelage of Peanut Butter, but Tony has another problem in the return of a longterm nemesis from his student days, Shinzo (Tatsuji Nobuhara) – lead singer of The Mad Reader, and the man who possibly stole Tony’s girl, Shinobu (Tomomi Hiraiwa). Thus Tony’s journey begins from useless loserdom to big time star, besting his rival and finally having a shot with the beautiful Shinobu, but all the while everyone is worrying about him. Peanut Butter is not a positive influence in Tony’s life, and the fact that he keeps talking to someone no one else can see is a definite cause for concern, but then again Peanut Butter says he can make Tony a star, if only he’ll ditch all his friends…
In short, Ghostroads is a vehicle for The Neatbeats – the kind of band movie they just don’t make anymore. Set firmly within the world of rockabilly subculture, the film also features a number of other underground bands including 50 Kaitenz and The Privates whose lead singer, Tatsuji Nobuhara, plays the part of Tony’s arch rival Shinzo. Peanut Butter assures Tony that all he needs is to find the one perfect song (something he can help him with, for a price), but every song featured is a hit with the soundtrack proving the film’s most essential asset.
Ghostroads commits absolutely to its retro aims, aping the classically kooky effects of the down and dirty silly rock horror movies of ages past. The effects are spot on with Peanut Butter permanently surrounded by a blueish haze which seems to intensify whenever he’s doing something not quite right. Peanut Butter also has a strange little hologram device featuring a tiny burlesque dancer (played by The Tassels’ Miwa Rock) which is never explained but adds to the increasingly surreal atmosphere. Surreal and quirky it most definitely is but Ghostroads has real love both for its subculture setting and for the long forgotten classics it’s trying to resurrect. Good, clean, unpretentious fun, Ghostroads is proof enough that the rock and roll spirit is alive and well and living in Japan.
Screened at Raindance 2017.
Original trailer (English subtitles)