Ivar Murd was clicking around SoundCloud after a long night of partying when he found an artist he had never heard of before: Uku Kuut. Uku’s sound entranced him. “I was fascinated by just how unique it was and strange it was. It sounded like it was from another world,” Murd says. He wanted to use his skills as a filmmaker to make a music video for Uku’s song “Hollywood,” a song about the Estonian artist’s arrival in Los Angeles. But something kept him researching Uku, and he quickly uncovered more. “It felt like there was a real story there, with extreme ups and extreme downs,” he said.

Within six months of finding Uku’s music, Murd had started producing a documentary on Uku’s life—what would become u.Q. (a play on the Estonian pronunciation of the name Uku), which premiered at the 2021 Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival in Estonia. It has since won the award for Best Music Film from Days of European Film, the contemporary film festival held annually in the Czech Republic.

At the time of this article’s publication, Uku Kuut has 7,818 monthly listeners on Spotify and 1,348 followers on SoundCloud. His small, cult following never exploded into something bigger—a huge contrast to his mother, Marju Kuut, an Estonian megastar of the 1960s. But what makes u.Q. special is not just the niche status of the artist, but the production of the film and how Murd constructed the narrative.

On November 6, 2022, u.Q. had its North American debut at the New York Baltic Film Festival. Held annually for the past five years at the Scandinavia House in New York City, the Baltic Film Festival features in-person film screenings of selected, new films from Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania followed by

Q&A sessions with the features’ directors (films can also be streamed online for the duration of the festival). I am sitting in an audience of about twenty, and before the lights go down, Murd, the director, producer, and editor of u.Q., introduces the film. “You’re getting the real experience, here in the theater on the big screen,” he says.

Through vivid analog footage, square against a black background, u.Q. explores, at first, the intense relationship between the Kuut mother-son duo. Marju is a single mother to Uku, and she describes him as her südamesõber, her best friend and soulmate. The documentary traces their relationship as they move across the world writing and producing music together: to Sweden, to Hollywood, and back to the Soviet Union. The audience learns the arc of Marju’s fame; a beloved Estonian singer, not only was Marju prolific (with over thirty albums), but in 1965, the jazz magazine Down Beat deemed her “the best singer in the Soviet Union.” Part of what exacerbated Marju’s fame in Estonia and made her unique as an

Estonian celebrity was that she was rarely back in the country. In April 2022, Murd wrote a piece on Marju published by the national news network Eesti Rahvusringhääling (ERR), in which he describes that Estonia is such a small country that one often sees celebrities. Marju, though, had always been away. “Ta ilmus ja kadus siis, kui ta soovis,” he writes (trans. “She appeared and disappeared as she wished.” She was a “Staar, ta oli Diiva” (trans. “star, she was a diva”), and the fact that she was never around only increased the intensity of her fame upon return to Estonia.

As I watch the film, one scene from their life in Sweden especially catches my eye. Marju and Uku move to Sweden in 1981 (with Murd’s choice of an Estonian cover of ABBA’s “Dancing Queen” as the soundtrack). Marju brags that Uku learns Swedish in three weeks; he quickly makes Swedish friends and starts his first band, We Are (some of We Are’s songs have now been uploaded onto SoundCloud and BandCamp). As Marju explains that hanging out with the band makes her feel young again, the film moves into footage from We Are’s first gig. There is Uku onstage, there are his friends, and there is Marju in the front row, swinging her hair back and forth, dancing. “Amazing that they have this footage,” I note.

“Who recorded it?”

There are a few other moments that I jot down as being phenomenal finds captured on film—in one scene, Uku takes over for Marju for a day at the lingerie store in L.A. where she works, and in another, the two of them move into their Sochi apartment. How did Marju and Uku have so much of their early life together on film? Who recorded these scenes? Where did this film come from? It is not until the end of the film that the answer is revealed: u.Q. is “a playful re-created documentary in three acts.”

“Like half of the film is recreated,” Murd explains during the Q&A session after the film. He has close-cut hair, black-framed glasses, and is seated in an armchair holding a microphone. He cites the We Are gig in Sweden as an example of one of the recreated scenes. The lighting was bad; they had actors wearing bad wigs. “But you can’t really tell, because you’re shooting through such a bad camera that it’s going to work with the older footage. Some of the more experienced actors were on set like, ‘Are you sure this isn’t a mockumentary, man? This wig looks really bad.’ I’d be like, ‘Trust me, please trust me.’ And they did, and afterwards they were like, ‘Alright, it worked, you were right.’”

When Murd started the project, Uku’s wife, Kertu, gave him a huge box of tapes. Some tapes, for example, were of Uku’s own edited videos; Murd describes that Uku had edited all of his original music videos himself. “It was Ampex, Beta, S-VHS, VHS, DVD—just this big box that we took from there. And there’s just hours and hours and hours; I think there must have been 100 hours of footage,” he tells me. “We had enough material that we felt we could make something that was close to all archives.”

The recreations that fill in the gaps in the archive are done so expertly that, at first glance, it is difficult to tell what is real and what is not. The u.Q. team decided to craft these recreations “lo-fi”—they did not have a big budget, Murd laughs, and this helped them make that decision. They spent a few weeks filming in L.A. (without permits), a time he reflects on fondly as allowing the actors and the team behind the cameras to experiment in a “great creative space.” “Even all the KGB stuff, all of it is recreated because we shot that with a GoPro. And then what we did is we dumped that through the VHS,” he explains.

“VHS is good because it loses quality. And Beta has like this other completely different, very rich look. So, we were using a bunch of these kinds of cameras.” u.Q. becomes as much a unique creation as it is Murd’s channel for Uku’s unique world and style.

Murd has experience using older cameras from his previous film work. Hailing from Kohtla-Järve, Estonia, Murd graduated with a degree in film from Farleigh Dickinson University in New Jersey. He has produced multiple documentaries and music videos, most of which are based in Estonia, with Estonian artists. Notably, Murd’s first feature-length piece was Ash Mountains (orig. Tuhamäed), which explores Kohtla-Järve—what ERR deems was once the “proletariat’s El Dorado”—and its relationships with its surrounding, infamous artificial mountains (the result of oil shale mining in the region). Murd is also an organizer for the annual Mägede Hääl (trans. Voice of the Mountains), a music festival in the north-eastern Estonian region where the ash mountains and his hometown are located. His music videos are also for Estonian artists: for example, he has produced multiple videos for the Tallinn-based dream-pop duo Vera Vice. These videos cleverly play with color, angles, and the relationship between sound and scene, often juxtaposing the pair’s clothing with their surroundings (in “Down the River,” they wear bright red raincoats and row a rusty boat, and they are shot from the side, from above, and from behind). With the grain, coloring, and mode of the shots, Murd’s characteristic style takes the viewer back in time—back to the era of analog video.

The film itself is split into sections that delineate different eras of Uku’s life—at first his life with Marju, and then on his own. There’s “1981 – Rootsi” (Sweden), when the pair move to Stockholm, and then sections for their Hollywood and Sochi moves, but the film also turns to his personal life: “1995 – Isa” (father), “2001 – Rahu” (peace), and “2007 – Õnn saab otsa” (luck runs out). In 2007, we see real footage of Uku playing the drums. Uku is purposefully filming himself to see his coordination errors; this footage marks the beginning of his long decline into ALS, which he is soon diagnosed with. In the following section, “2009 – Minek” (most closely translates to “going”), the film switches to modern-day footage of Uku in his home. “Visions of Estonia,” one of his most popular tracks, begins to play.

After years without music being central in his life—moving into fatherhood, other jobs, controversy, and relationships—Uku says, “This disease was given to me so I could make music.” Kertu says that music gets him out of bed and gives meaning to his life, and that during this period, he reaches a certain level of “earthly asceticism.” In a haunting, beautiful transition, we leave the voiceovers and the house, the music quieting until the only sound is birdsong. The shot widens from the square of the analog to a full-screen, modern color shot of Uku in a scarf and his wheelchair, with Kertu sitting in a chair next to him. Kertu’s mouth is moving, but we do not hear any dialogue. The only sound is birds, and the effect is both melancholy and mesmerizing.

Murd says that this shot is of the last time Uku ever went outside. Uku passed away at the age of 51 in September 2017, during the first years of the documentary’s production. From there, navigating the emotions of creating the documentary were difficult; people close to Uku had strong emotions and grief. “Whenever someone passes, people have a lot of guilt. They have a lot of uncomfortable emotions. It’s your job to help them sort of navigate that. And not in a way where you’re trying to get something out of it,” Murd explains. Murd made one of the most important stylistic choices of the movie: to rely solely on voiceovers. Knowing that interviewing individuals in general is intimidating—the bright lights, the camera set-ups, the crew—Murd went into interviews alone, with just a tape recorder. He then filled in the rest of the narrative with image.

Murd continued editing the documentary for three and a half years. “It was just me on my laptop, in my kitchen, during the pandemic,” Murd describes. “I would render something, and then I would go on a four-hour walk.” When the film was finally released, the pandemic was still in full effect, and u.Q. brought less than a thousand people to theaters. “That’s really low numbers, super low, even for Estonia,” Murd says. “For the Estonian audience, I think I overestimated how interested people would be in the film; I figured they’d be curious just because it’s Estonian. But the music is so niche that most people don’t get it. And that’s completely fine.”

However, in April 2022, Marju Kuut passed away. ERR, also the Estonian public broadcasting channel and the largest channel in the country, immediately started playing u.Q. to honor her memory. Around 50,000 people watched u.Q. live, a huge number for Estonia, and Murd estimates that about 10,000 streamed it. “Sadly, for musicians like this, their passing will create more interest in them,” Murd says.

Though Uku did not ever reach that super-stardom of his mother in Estonia, Murd has become familiar with the fact that Uku did have a larger global audience than an Estonian one. “Someone in Peru wrote to me: ‘Hey, I love his music. I didn’t know there was a documentary. We’re gonna see the film,’” Murd says. “And I was like, ‘You know, you can’t really see the film. But here’s the Vimeo link. Do you guys want to do a screening or something?’” The film was not accessible for streaming online, and Murd sent the fan in Peru both the Vimeo link to u.Q. and its password.

“And honestly, if someone like steals it, I don’t care. As long as it gets to more people, that’s all it is,” Murd says. The passion around small artists—like Uku Kuut, the artists that Murd would discover during late nights on SoundCloud—is what he really values. Watching the documentary, the artistry and creativity of u.Q. only underline the deep care of the followings around these artists. “Because that’s the way these niche artists build up a following. It’s completely word of mouth, and it’s completely people being really into someone’s music and giving it to someone and giving it to someone else. We had that audience in mind. We wanted to make something for that audience.”

Even beyond Estonia, Hollywood, and their sounds, Uku’s instrumentals are atmospheric; not an Estonian atmosphere, but rather one reminiscent of the Los Angeles of his youth. Murd’s film is a brilliant drop into this colorful and fascinating life, constructing a hero’s journey, as he describes it, out of the Kuuts’ “extreme ups and extreme downs.” The story is full of challenge and scandal, but also love and creative exploration. Murd says, “Even if you don’t like the music, the story itself should be strong enough to take you on this journey.”