Viktor Tsoi was the Clifford Brown of Soviet rock & roll. He was immensely talented and generally well-liked, but died far too young in an auto accident. Although he was not really a dissident rocker, like the legendary Plastic People of the Universe, he never received much support from the official cultural apparatus. Tsoi’s live-fast-die-young rock & roll story is impressionistically chronicled in Kirill Serebrennikov’s Leto, which opens this Friday in New York, less than two months after the director was released from house arrest, for the crime of being an artist in Putin’s Russia (technically, the charge was embezzlement, but nobody really believed it).
By the 1980s, the Communist Party realized they could no longer prohibit rock music outright, but they still deeply distrusted everything about it, particularly the musicians that played it. The Leningrad Rock Club was one of the few officially sanctioned performances spaces, but audiences were expected to sedately sit on their hands, like they were attending a government hearing. Mayk “Mike” Naumenko was one of the few established rockers, who had credibility with both the fans and the apparatchiks. He could usually get a new act stage time there, as long as they said the right things. Viktor Tsoi has trouble doing that.
Tsoi is Naumenko’s great, yet-to-be-discovered protégé, but their relationship gets rather more complicated when his wife Natasha (a.k.a. Natalia, the mother of his young child) starts developing feelings for Tsoi. There is a certain degree of openness to their marriage, but her feelings run deeper than mere physical attraction. Likewise, Tsoi feels genuine gratitude and esteem for his mentor, which makes it awkward for everyone. Plus, just being a rock musician in Soviet Russian is difficult in its own right.
Watching Leto (meaning “Summer,” for reasons that are not immediately obvious) in conjunction with Rocket Man, the latest big studio rock bio-pic is an interesting compare and contrast exercise. Sadly, Tsoi’s career would be drastically shorter. While Elton John might have experienced social resistance to his lifestyle choices, Tsoi’s very means of expression were effectively curtailed and he often risked explicit censorship.
Both films also incorporate flights of fanciful fantasy, but they are rather brief exaggerations of the subject’s emotional states in Rocket Man, whereas Leto features long, wildly surreal interludes that even include stylized animated passages. Sometimes, these fantastical visions seem to herald great victories in Tsoi’s career, until Serebrennikov pans to a bystander holding a sign that says: “this never happened.”
Some have compared Serebennikov’s use of black-and-white cinematographer with occasional splashes of dramatic color to Schindler’s List, but films like Absolute Beginners, Purple Rain, and even The Wall are more influential touchstones. Of course, there is a lot of rock music and rock references throughout the film, from the likes of Lou Reed, David Bowie, and somewhat surprisingly T.Rex.
Teo Yoo does a terrific job humanizing Tsoi and he bears a strong likeness to the rock icon (whose father was ethnic Korean). Roma Zver (Bilyk) also nicely sidesteps all those over-shadowed-mentor clichés as the not-as-aloof-as-he-pretends Mike Naumenko. However, Irina Starshenbaum really anchors the film emotionally as the conflicted Natasha.
Early in the film, we see Natasha and her friends sneaking into the Stalingrad Rock Club through and open bathroom window and hiding in stalls to evade the old fuddy-duddy security guard. It is scenes like this that express the spirit of rock & roll better than just about any film since A Hard Day’s Night (Rocket Man is nice too, especially depicting the relationship between Elton John and Bernie Taupin, but it won’t surprise you like Leto). Very highly recommended, Leto opens this Friday (6/7) in New York, and June 21st in LA, at the Laemmle Ahrya Fine Arts.