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THE PERFORMANCE: EUGENE HUTZ

Madonna's pick

When she asked the singer to be in the new film she was writing and directing, he saw it as an opportunity for 'busting out my funk.'

October 30, 2008|Michael Ordona

When you're the godfather of "Gypsy punk," little fazes you. Not even if you're in the studio recording with your band and out of the blue Madonna calls to invite you to participate in the film she's writing and directing.

"We met very casually, no agents and no managers involved," said Eugene Hutz in his thick Ukrainian accent, by phone from his home in Rio de Janeiro. "I think the script basically evolved out of chatting and fun brainstorming. Perhaps she had some blocks written before, but those were not the blocks for me. I was kind of invited in for my own quality for this film, where I was basically busting out my funk, you know?"

Hutz (pronounced Hoodz) is the "singer, lyricist and visionary" of Gogol Bordello, a band that mixes anarchic attitude, rough-edged guitar, bass and drums, and glam-rock/performance-art showmanship with traditional Gypsy sounds (the band includes a violinist, accordionist and two dancers) -- all powered by Hutz's manic energy. He believes the erstwhile Material Girl was aware of his band for some time and knew of him via mutual friends such as Liev Schreiber, the director of Hutz's first film, 2005's "Everything Is Illuminated."

Madonna's movie is "Filth and Wisdom," a low-budget look at three friends: an aspiring musician (Hutz) whose day job is as a sadomasochistic master, an aspiring ballerina who turns to stripping and an aspiring foreign aid worker who is systematically stealing drugs from the pharmacy at which she works.

"I think it's a lighthearted film about people trying to find a place in life, with a philosophical touch, which is also not to be overanalyzed," he said. "This was not meant to be a dissertation; it was meant to be an optimistic, romantic film with some funky abracadabra in it."

It turns out the music his character composes in the film as a result of various inspirations that pop up throughout the movie was not actually composed for the film. Rather, the songs come from the band's current album, "Super Taranta!," and the film was tailored around them.

"First time I talked with Madonna was actually when she called me in the studio; we were just finishing this album. So we had all the stuff on the table up for grabs, you know? Fresh out of the oven," Hutz said.

Hutz was born near Kiev in 1972, and his Gypsy-descended family left the Soviet Union when he was 17. After years of Eastern European refugee camps, through which he could take only the most basic of necessities -- such as his two guitars -- Hutz found his way to Manhattan's Lower East Side.

Hutz, who often sports an Elvis Presley-Joe Strummer pompadour and Josef Stalin-Salvador Dali mustache, acknowledges there is much of himself in his "Filth and Wisdom" role -- he's quick to point out that he's talking about the years of struggle, not the sex work -- and that, after working on the tightly structured "Illuminated," he was very happy to flex his improvisational muscles.

"One was very scrupulously directed," he said, expressing great respect for Schreiber. "This one was pretty much free-form. Madonna was great for letting me do all these things. I think she was very scrupulous with other actors in the film, but I was kind of doing what I wanted to do."

Considering the fusion-reaction drive of his stage performances, Hutz is unexpectedly low-key in conversation, until he's asked about the description he created for his music, "Gypsy punk."

"I had to," he scoffed, "because as a young artist you think people want to hear something that's unheard-of, something that's original, something that's fantastic and multilayered, something that's alchemic and absolutely renaissance mind-blowing. And then you deal with the whole system of people who just say, 'Well, how the . . . am I going to sell this?' So there you come again, give them one more . . . helping hand. You've already created the magnificent and fantastic and renaissance mind-blowing," he says, going on to rail about having to hold marketers' hands to help them sell the music.

"It was easy for me to come up with it, simply autobiographical. I am Gypsy ethnically, and I've been into punk rock since I was a baby. It's like a tattoo that I could make on my arm, 'Gypsy punk.' It's my biography."

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Ordona is a freelance writer.

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Where you've seen him

Eugene Hutz's only previous feature film role was as the enthusiastic guide Alex in "Everything Is Illuminated" with Elijah Wood, adapted and directed by Liev Schreiber. Hutz's band, Gogol Bordello, is the subject of the documentary "Gogol Bordello Non-Stop," which will be seen at the AFI Fest on Saturday and Wednesday. The group is about to begin a South American tour ("We're starting to conquer Latin America," Hutz said) and then will record a new album. "Filth and Wisdom" features several songs from the band's current record, "Super Taranta!," and some from an earlier album "Gogol Bordello vs. Tamir Muskat."

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