Rock & roll just works better with an outsider attitude. Take two very different films about the short-lived Soviet rocker, Viktor Tsoi (or Tsoy depending on the film). Kirill Serebrennikov, who was arrested on trumped on charges and confined to house arrest for several months after criticizing the “annexation” of the Crimea, helmed the gritty and powerful Leto, which definitely reflects the uncompromising spirit of Tsoi’s music. On the other hand, Tsoi hardly appears in the new film directed by Alexei Ushitel, officially proclaimed a “People’s Artist of Russia” in 2002. Instead, it focuses (with little sympathy) on those he left behind, as they accompany his coffin on a final round trip from Latvia to St. Petersburg in Uchitel’s Tsoy, the opening film of this year’s online Russian Film Week USA.
Tragically, bus driver Pavel Shelest collided with “Tsoy,” but Uchitel makes it clear it was the distracted singer’s fault. Nevertheless, Shelest has a record, so the media and the Russian authorities are determined to scapegoat him. However, his lover happens to be the Latvian cop investigating the incident (which seems like a minor conflict of interest). Ironically, Shelest is stuck driving the bus chartered to convey Tsoi and his entourage back to St. Petersburg. Awkwardly, the passengers include his widow, her current boyfriend, the lover Tsoi had been living with, and his mercenary producer. There is also a mysterious photographer, who might know more about events leading up to the accident than she lets on.
Tsoi only appears briefly in archival concert and documentary footage, which is problematic, considering the film is titled Tsoy. Arguably, it makes him look rather reckless and it portrays his widow as an emotionally distant ice queen. Only Tsoi’s young son, who inevitably befriends Shelest, shows any signs of human warmth.
Tsoy is so ill-conceived, it will make viewers shake their heads in disbelief. Yes, the death of Tsoi was assuredly traumatic for many of his fans, but Uchitel’s screenplay (co-written with Aleksandr Gonorovskiy and Savva Minaev) never attempts to explain that deep connection. It just comes across as a needlessly exploitative exercise, especially when contrasted with Jeremy Profe’s The Lennon Report, which dramatized the night of John Lennon’s death with far greater sensitivity.
Tsoi deserves better and he received far, far better in Serebrennikov’s Leto. He also continues to be culturally important, particularly since his song “Changes” has been adopted as the anthem of the Belarus protests against the Lukashenko regime. The truth is Tsoi is just so much bigger and more important than this film. On the other hand, Leto is an incredible film that does right by Tsoi and his music. It is highly recommended and available on VOD, but do not worry about Uchitel’s Tsoy, which kicked off Russian Film Week USA (with better selections scheduled later in the week).