Kirill Serebrennikov (Director), Hype Film/Kinovista, 126 mins
Image: Aleksander Kuznetsov as The Skeptik in Leto (Summer)
“The Soviet rock musician must find the light inside of mankind. He must have an active role in society.” So says the director of the Leningrad Rock Club, Anna Aleksandrovna (Yuliya Aug), as she examines the lyrics of Viktor Tsoi (Teo Yoo). The Rock Club is a bastion of liberty in an otherwise monochromatic world and Anna is its gatekeeper. Tsoi’s lyrics engage with the poetic aspects of working class life, but in order to appease the censor, his songs are masked as critiques of unsavoury behaviour: sexual promiscuity, teenage alcoholism and parasitism.
Tsoi, who died in a car accident in 1990, is a heroic figure in the eyes of many Russian speakers. His legacy, and that of his post punk band Kino, stretches far beyond its original Soviet context. It still resonates. So strongly, in fact, that Tsoi is the subject of three separate movies produced this year. Leto (Summer) was the first to be released, premiering at the Cannes Film Festival (where it won the Soundtrack Award), and is, perhaps, the most controversial.
Directed by Kirill Serebrennikov, Leto is an endearing, if somewhat fictional, portrait of the 1980s Soviet rock era. Set in Leningrad, the film follows the early working relationship of Tsoi and Mike Naumenko (Roman Bilyk), songwriter and frontman of the blues rock band Zoopark. The screenplay is based on the recollections of Naumenko’s widow, Natasha (Irina Starshenbaum) and ensnares the three main protagonists in a love triangle. Those who knew them consider this an ill-conceived plot device. Boris Grebenshchikov, a Russian rock legend in his own right, went as far as to call the screenplay “Lies, from start to finish.” at a televised press conference.
Grebenshchikov may be right, but Leto is fiction, after all. The viewer is frequently reminded of this by Sceptic (Aleksandr Kuznetsov), a peripheral character who has a habit of dramatically breaking the fourth wall. In one scene, he starts a near-riot at the Rock Club by encouraging the sedentary audience to get up and dance, before reminding us that none of this actually happened.
Such moments are there to articulate the complex dynamics of Soviet life: rock is allowed, but dancing to it is not. To experience a taste of freedom, the audience must look inward. In the ARU TV video blog, the Russian music journalist Artemy Troitsky, who also worked as a consultant on the film, refers to this phenomenon as “total internal emigration”. According to Troitsky, this was a crucial tactic, used by artists and audience alike, to survive in a totalitarian state, which was closed off from the rest of the world. (Serebrennikov might have been forced to employ this tactic to finish the film. He’s been under house arrest since August 2017, for the alleged embezzlement of government grants.)
Leto finds itself following in the tradition of many western biopics that bend the facts for the benefit of artistic effect: The Doors (1991), 24 Hour Party People (2002), Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll (2010). It must be remembered, however, that rock thrives on myth. If a film accurately manages to reflect the energy felt by the listener when he or she hears those songs, then it should be treated as a success. These emotions are, of course, intimately subjective, but Serebrennikov’s Leto gets close to illuminating them.
Originally published by Wire, November 2018