Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Tue Jun 18, 2019 3:54 pm 
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An elegy to Eighties Russian rock

This mostly black and white film is from Russia's Kirill Serebrennikov, the director of 2016's austere, intensely focused film The Student. But this one is both wild and elusive, hard to pin down. During my Filmleaf vicarious Cannes coverage last year (when Leto was in Competition), I wrote this: "The title means 'summer', or here in Cannes, l'été. 'A wild, whirling, often confounding 1980s rock opus' that 'moves freely,' says Guy Lodge in his Variety review, despite the director's being under house arrest. A sometimes messy over-two-hour film based on the life of 'tragically short-lived Soviet singer-songwriter Viktor Tsoi' and the Leningrad rock scene of the Eighties. Last year I reviewed the director's The Student (SFIFF). This sounds like a shocking but exotically fascinating contrast to that film's cool formalism. It also sounds like a film I'd probably like to watch - at a festival".

Released in France, this film got a 4.4 AlloCiné press rating and was chosen as one of Cahiers du Cinéma's ten best films of 2018.

Now, Leto is getting limited release in the US, and I've just watched it and savored its truly unique flavor. It's a very fresh kind of musical biopic, whose subject, Eighties music star Viktor Tsoi (1962-1990), played by the dreamy Korean-German Teo Yoo, always seems a little off-center, and doesn't even appear until 15 minutes into the film. That's because, as is pointed out by Siddhant Adlakha in the Indian journal Shosha, this is about Tsoi's relationship with older musician Akvarium and Zoopark lead singer Mike Naumenko (played by Zveri vocalist Roman Bilyk), who takes it upon himself to guide the fresh and sexy Tsoi, who at first is very tentative and doesn't have a name for his group yet.

As Lodge says in Variety , Leto "happily avoids the bland structural pitfalls of the musical biopic," because "The scene is the star here." The film has color music video moments (in small square formats flanked by scrawled white-on-black lyrics) amid the soft gray imagery whose natural daytime light alternates with bright music hall floods, and a key seaside scene is a symphony of naked bodies, flying clothing, and beams of cool sunlight shining into the camera, one of the most beautiful, and offbeat, beach sequences I've ever seen: this is where Tsoi and Naumenko first rather tentatively meet.

But that seems quite forgotten in the next scene on a train, as one of the singers is brutally beaten, his nose bloody and broken from the attack of a government goon, whereupon suddenly everyone bursts into a rollicking fantasy cover performance of the Talking Heads' "Psycho Killer," young musicians and grumpy, dumpy passengers all joining in with "hand-drawn intrusions," diamond-etched white writing superimposed over the images. Was Eighties MTV ever like this? This is one of a series of interpolated covers from the Talking Heads, Lou Reed, Iggy Pop, et al., adding something uncommon in basic biopics, a full representation of Tsoi and Naumenko’s influences. (Amid the repressed performances there are wild and loud ones where the audience cuts loose with the superimposed caption этого не произошло, "This did not happen." Siddhant Adlakha calls this warning, later repeated, "Brechtian.")

In the earliest, as it were instructional, concert scene where Naumenko performs in a hall, fans are not even allowed silently to flash a banner with a heart, and must sit tapping their fingers and discreetly clapping, while the performers' lyrics have had be pre-approved by stony-faced government censors. Things haven't changed that much, since during the making of the film, as I noted during last year's Cannes, Sereb​r​ennkov was put under house arrest (not released till this April) and Leto had to be completed by others using the filmmaker's notes and in somewhat more modest form than he intended; but IMDb says he was able to edit the film at home himself.

There are lots of free-flowing scenes, the beach sequence one of the finest examples (all by camera Vladislav Opeliants), with vodka or beer guzzling, gabbing, and jamming, when indoors often in cluttered, crammed and shabby and clearly nostalgic Soviet collective apartments with high ceilings and glamorous architectural remnants. It's all part of the focus on the mood and the group and the fluidity of the bittersweet, fondly remembered times, when only the fantasy performances are vibrant, but the memories are all peppered with them.

Leningrad rock in the Eighties is a kind of house arrest in itself. What can they do, where can they go, "after the Beatles, the Stones, the Doors," asks Mike one day, "Led Zeppelin, the Clash, Joy Division, T-Rex, even Blondie! Not to mention even fucking Amanda Lear." But then to justify provincial limitation he adds the epigrammatic line, "It's OK in the swamp, especially if you're No. 1 toad." There follows a boldly homoerotic cover of 1972 glam rock anthem "All the young dudes." written by David Bowie and first recorded by Mott the Hoople.

The film doesn't strive to depict Viktor's life or the success of his band, called Kino, which led to a period of "Kinomania" and is still admired, though the personal and collective are interwoven. This isn't a world of rock excess, either. Mike and his girlfriend Natacha (Irina Starshenbaum) live a quietly monogamous life, till Natacha negotiates with Mike the right to kiss Viktor, and then it becomes a bit of a love triangle. When the last, small, concert scene comes, with Viktor singing and Mike watching, and the short spans of their lives are flashed on the screen, Viktor's as we said 1962-1990, and Mike's 1955-1991, I wanted to cry. The charm of this scene had been delicately conveyed, and one couldn't bear to imagine it so soon gone. A sublimely restrained, fresh and original film, quite possibly the most memorable musical of the year.

Leto[летом]/Summer, 126 mins., debuted at Cannes May 2018 in Competition; in 22 other international festivals, premiered in Paris June 24, 2018, extremely appreciated with a 4.4 AlloCiné press rating, a very rare top score from Cahiers du Cinéma and 5th highest review from Les Inrocks. US theatrical release began June 7, 2019. Metascore 70%.

Kirill Serebrennikov was released from house arrest on April 8, 2019. He had been detained since August 2017 on embezzlement charges that are believed to have been politically motivated.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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