Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

June 7, 2019

Leto

Filed under: Film,music,Russia — louisproyect @ 11:30 pm

Opening today at Film Noir Cinema, a new theater in Brooklyn, and at the Laemmle in L.A. on June 21, “Leto” (summer) is a Russian film about the burgeoning rock and roll scene there in the early 80s that is simply rapturous. It is based on two of the period’s top musicians who are seen in their early struggling period: Viktor Tsoi and Mike Naumenko. A good half of the film is devoted to performances based on their music and will remind you of why rock and roll will never die. Despite living in the Brezhnev era, Viktor and Mike find ways to express themselves, even when it involves feinting and ducking the repressive tendencies of the bureaucrats overseeing rock and roll concerts. Instead of banning the music, much of the effort is directed toward making it more consistent with Soviet values. However, if your favorite musicians are Lou Reed, the Sex Pistols and Blondie, there’s bound to be challenges to the peaceful co-existence between artist and officialdom.

The film is directed by Kiril Serebrennikov, whose apartment and studio were raided by Russian cops in 2017 to find evidence of embezzlement. Since Serebrennikov had criticized the 2014 Russian annexation of Crimea and spoken out in support of Russia’s LGBT community, many understood this as veiled political repression and spoke in his defense.

I am not familiar with Serebrennikov’s earlier work but based on the evidence of “Leto”, I would regard him as one of the major filmmakers in today’s Russia. Although “Leto” is mostly in black-and-white, color is introduced for maximum impact in key scenes. It is impossible to determine who his influences are but “Leto” reminds me of Richard Lester’s “Hard Days Night”, except focused on obscure and struggling musicians rather than superstars. What “Leto” and “Hard Day’s Night” have in common is a seamless transition between musical performance and narrative drama that are mutually reinforcing.

Serebrennikov also introduces surrealistic touches that will remind you of Lester. For example, in one of my favorite scenes, Viktor and Mike’s wife Natasha are taking a bus to bring a cup of coffee to where Mike works (rock and roll has not yet begun to pay the rent) and midway there people on the bus, stolid and elderly Soviet men and women, begin to sing Iggy Pop’s “The Passenger”—a bit off-key but totally rock and roll.

The plot revolves around the triangle that involved Natasha sleeping with Viktor but only after Mike had given his blessing. Suffice it to say that Mike, who loved Viktor’s music, was never moved to break off relations. The image we get of the rock musician milieu of the early 80s in Russia is one that is marked by solidarity and affection. Given the state of Russia today, you might conclude that there was a subtle message in Serebrennikov’s film, namely that such musicians were the heart and soul of the country and an obvious inspiration for Pussy Riot and other counter-culture figures of the left who were as disgusted with Russian society as Lou Reed was with the USA.

“Leto” is based on the memories of Natalia Naumenko, Mike Naumenko’s wife. Mike, who died in 1991 at the age of 36 from alcohol abuse, was the leader of Zoopark, a band that performed songs that were often translations or interpretations of the western rock songs of Bob Dylan, Lou Reed or T. Rex according to Wikipedia. Viktor Tsoi, a Korean who grew up in Kazakhstan, led a band named Kino. Referring once again to the essential Wikipedia. I discovered that despite his fame, he led a modest life, even keeping his old job in the boiler room of an apartment building after achieving huge success. His songs, like Naumenko’s, were political. Wikipedia states:

1987 was a breakthrough year for Kino. The release of their 6th album Blood Type (Gruppa Krovi) triggered what was then called “Kinomania”. The open political climate under glasnost allowed Tsoi to make Blood Type, his most political album, yet it also allowed him to record a sound of music that no one before him had been able to play. Most of the tracks on the album were directed at the youth of the Soviet Union, telling them to take control and make changes within the nation; some of the songs addressed the social problems crippling the nation. The sound and lyrics of the album made Tsoi a hero among Soviet youth and Kino the most popular rock band ever. In the diverse Soviet republics, fans translated his originally Russian lyrics into their native languages as well.

Like Naumenko, Tsoi died at an early age. In 1990, at the age of 28, he fell asleep at the wheel and died in a crash. As a sign of his transcendent appeal, even officialdom paid its respects in a Komsomolskaya Pravda obit.

Tsoi means more to the young people of our nation than any politician, celebrity or writer. This is because Tsoi never lied and never sold out. He was and remains himself. It’s impossible not to believe him… Tsoi is the only rocker who has no difference between his image and his real life, he lived the way he sang… Tsoi is the last hero of rock

“Leto” is a great film and likely to be my pick for best foreign-language film of 2019. Do not miss it.

1 Comment »

  1. Leto’ is a a really good film although i wish ti could have been 15 minutes shorter. I personally would have preferred more scenes performing in the rock club and less of the MTV-like video showpieces, although they do capture something of the times. I would say the guiding theme of the film is a mediation on “Perfect Day,” the Lou Reed song from the album Berlin. I would like to read some Russian views of the film. In my opinion, Mike’s songs seem more rock in a Western sense while Victor’s seem more “Slavic” in their lyrics if I can put it that way. I was thinking about “the Mighty Five” at times when watching Leto.

    However, I most want to call attention to Film Noir It is a fantastic place to see films as it is a small boutique setting with about 50 seats. Film Noir shows a lot of great B genre films from Europe and especially Japan that you would never see at Anthology Film Archives. It is really worth checking out the program which can often change from day to day.

    Comment by HH — June 12, 2019 @ 2:27 pm


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