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In Soviet Russia, Communism Can’t Stop The Beat

Filed by KOSU News in Art & Life.
February 23, 2012

In the late 1990s, while covering the Moscow Film Festival, I was shown around MosFilm, the government-run studio where the vast majority of Russian films were made during the Soviet era. With the collapse of state film financing after perestroika, the humongous lot had become a forlorn ghost town whose output had shrunk from 400 films per year to four. Local filmmakers, unaccustomed to the arduous hunt-and-peck of soliciting private funding, glumly predicted the death of Russian cinema.

In fact, the country’s post-Soviet rush to capitalism has brought a modest film boom (some of it, according to rumor, financed by the mafia), with lively innovation in every genre imaginable. Except, that is, the musical, a form dedicated to joy and silliness that never meshed with the dour socialist realism that hung like a pall over Soviet cinema for most of the 20th century.

Stalin, of all people, had a soft spot for American musicals and even championed an indigenous project with the unlikely title of Jolly Fellows. But had the comrade in chief lived to see what became of his terror state, he might have set the cultural police on the irrepressibly upbeat Hipsters, a musical romp about a small counterculture that blossomed during the brief cultural thaw under Nikita Khrushchev in the 1950s, immediately after Stalin’s death. I can’t see current President Vladimir Putin tapping his toe either, not to a movie that gets off several sly zingers at the expense of his beloved KGB. But Moscow moviegoers lapped up Hipsters on its release in 2008, and the film earned a raft of Russian Oscars.

But then in societies starved for merriment, revolution often begins as a revolt of style. Based on a book about a youthful subculture that plundered American jazz and boogie for its own musical and sartorial makeover, this ecstatically candy-colored romp, directed by Ukrainian-born Valery Todorovsky, opens with a raid by uptight young Komsomol sin hunters — all braids and gray potato-sack frocks — on a wild hipster gathering along a Moscow street they’ve renamed “Broadway.”

Enchanted by the free spirits and ducktailed pompadours of these rebels with a cause, one young party loyalist named Mels (Anton Shagin) flees the prissy conformity of the Young Communists. When not learning to play the saxophone — from an African-American friend whose influence on him will later loom larger still — Mels scours the black market for yellow houndstooth jackets and purple shirts. Shagin gives off a Joseph Gordon-Levitt vibe — a little bit lost, a whole lot ready for carnal adventure. The latter appears without delay in the supple form of Polly (Oksana Akinshina, last seen in Lukas Moodysson’s Lilya 4-Ever), a mystery girl with sad brown eyes and a complicated dynamic with the men who fall at her feet.

The plot is what you’d expect: sporadic tussles with authority (Todorovsky’s wife, Evgenia Brik, is very good as the uptight Commie lieutenant who denounces Mels after he rejects her), intercut with generous helpings of sex, innocent nudity and explosions into song.

Like many musicals, Hipsters is less committed to story than to its exuberant song-and-dance routines, which meld actual hipster tunes with numbers from the late-1980s flowering of indigenous rock. The hipster moment may have faded fast through repression and attrition, but in Todorovsky’s reading, it was crucially formative on today’s Russian youth.

Almost alone among all the post-Soviet nations, Putin’s Russia has lagged in facing up to its Communist past — on or off the screen. It may be too much to expect a musical fantasy to launch a little overdue introspection. Yet given the power of song and sex to shift the mindset of whole generations, you never know. Toward the end of this sweetly jubilant movie, a diplomat’s son and former hipster star (Maksim Mateev) returns from abroad in a turncoat’s dull suit and tells Mels that there are no hipsters in America. He’s lying, not that it matters. Sauntering down Broadway one more time, Mels is joined by a crowd of rockers and punk rockers, all of whom owe the freedom to color their mohawks scarlet to him and his long-gone friends. (Recommended) [Copyright 2012 National Public Radio]

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