German filmmaker Fatih Akin is one of the stars of European cinema. His gritty dramas about Turkish immigrants in Germany have earned him accolades at the Cannes Film Festival, as well as an Oscar nomination.
But from the very first beats of his latest film, Soul Kitchen, you know you're not in for an evening of European art-house fare.
The film opens as chef Zinos throws frozen fish and chips in the deep fryer, jamming to Quincy Jones in his dingy kitchen. A grungy, very hungry crowd waits outside. The camera zooms out to reveal the inside of a warehouse in the industrial quarter of Hamburg.
Soul Kitchen is a comedy built around music. It's also a love song to Fatih Akin's hometown, and a restaurant called the Taverna where he spent much of his 20s.
"It was more than just a restaurant," Akin says. "It was like a home base for the whole neighborhood, so artists were hanging around there -- but, like, artists who never really created something you know."
That restaurant belonged to Akin's best friend, the Greek-German actor Adam Bousdoukos, who stars in Soul Kitchen as Zinos.
"And he was putting like one turntable in it and then a second one," Akin says. "And he asked people to DJ there. I was DJing there."
That nightly routine inspired Akin to work on a story about the imaginary homes we create as young people -- homes that are less about geography and more about friends, strong drinks and, of course, the right mix of music.
"When you're a really good DJ, you see he's able to mix the tracks," Akin says. "You don't realize it as an audience. He's really surfing on the beat, and I was wondering if this is a possible with a picture."
Extension Of Personality
For Akin, that meant creating a film that echoed what he would hear when he went out in Hamburg in the '90s: clubs filled with American black music from two or three decades earlier.
"We came from an American-occupied country -- what Germany was," Akin says. "So we were very influenced by America."
For Akin's crowd -- the children of immigrants and interracial relationships -- soul music always carried an additional layer of meaning.
"When Dyke and the Blazers sing 'We Got More Soul,' when we talk we got more soul," Akin says. "We felt like they speak about us, people with backgrounds. We have more soul than the white Germans have. That was this identification."
Fatih Akin spent more than two years collecting the music for Soul Kitchen and spent almost $300,000 to buy the rights. He then wrote the script based on those songs.
"What I do is, like, I put the vinyl out," Akin says. "I listen to the track and I read the scene I've written, and if it makes sense I keep it."
The result is almost 60 songs onscreen, and a two-disc soundtrack. The set includes tracks by Curtis Mayfield and Donny Hathaway, but also Greek pop songs, German hip-hop and Middle Eastern electronic music.
"It's an extension of personality," Garth Trinidad says. He's a DJ and radio host at the Los Angeles public radio station KCRW, and he says spinning records can also tell a story. "From the past, from way back or from five minutes ago or whatever it might be, there's always the individual aspect of what's going on in somebody's life that serves that purpose."
The Young Turks
Fatih Akin catapulted to international stardom in 2004 with his film Head-On, about two German-Turks who fall and fail in love. Like the characters in that film, Akin grew up in a Turkish family in Hamburg, negotiating his place as the son of devout Muslim parents and as a young German who loved nightlife.
Akin's films, like his previous drama The Edge of Heaven, pulsate with intensity. They have urgency that comes out of questions about how we define love, identity and home in a globalized world.
But he says he felt critics became obsessed with asking what additional light he could shed on Europe's immigrant problems. So for him, Soul Kitchen was an act of defiance.
"It really was liberation to not be the slave of certain success, to not be the slave of expectations people have," Akin says.
Some have called Soul Kitchen frothy, Fatih Akin-lite. But he says that's exactly the point: to remain true to all of his creative impulses. It's also a tribute to that now-gentrifying corner of Hamburg that set the course for Akin's other films.
"Soul Kitchen will always have an important -- it might not be important like solving the world, but for me it was in so many terms important," he says.