Russia (2018) Dir. Kirill Serebrennikov

It’s a long way to the top if you want to rock and roll, unless you are living in Communist Russia in the 1980s in which case, it is a very long way to the top but only if the Party approves of your lyrics first. After all, it’s not like music ever brought about rebellion or social change or anything…

Back in the summer of 1981, the only place musicians, successful or starting out, could play to live crowds was the state run Leningrad Rock Club, where punters were forced to sit calmly in their chairs under the watchful eye of KGB enforcers a their heroes bashed out their latest state approved ditties. Punk had belatedly arrived on Soviet soil but was so far an underground attraction only.

The big star at this time was Mike Naumenko (Roman Bilyk) and his band Zoopark. During a beach party, his friend, Punk (Alexander Gorchilin) invited two young musicians along, Viktor Tsoi (Teo Yoo) and Leonid (Filipp Avdeev), to sing their songs. Mike is immediately taken with Viktor’s lyrics and offers to help him with his career. Someone else also taken with Viktor for a different reason is Mike’s girlfriend Natacha (Irina Starshenbaum).

Leto, the Russian for “Summer”, doesn’t offer much in the way of musical connotations with its title but was it does offer is a rare insight into the underground Soviet rock scene of the 1980s, as well as introducing two legends of the scene to international audiences. Kirill Serebrennikov’s audacious and cheeky musical is a fantasised biopic of  Viktor Tsoi of the band Kino, and Mike Naumenko without being a proper biopic – largely due to the central plot of Naumenko helping Tsoi being untrue.

Serebrennikov’s audacity shines in other areas, most obviously in the presentation – an almost entirely black and white film with some splashes of colour, and classic punk and alternate rock songs being sung by background characters because why not? Throw in some MTV style animation and a fourth wall-breaking narrator named Skeptic (Aleksandr Kuznetsov) and you have a suitably subversive opus on your hands.

With the likelihood of the true stories of Tsoi and Naumenko being unknown to audiences outside of Russia being very high, there is every chance Serebrennikov’s narrative will be considered gospel, despite the disclaimer at the end explicitly stating otherwise. Local viewers might be more forgiving to see these two immortalised in film and consider the cross over Serebrennikov posits as a dream collaboration they never got to see.

As most music biopics or films about the music business tend to follow the usual rags to riches, rock and roll excess formula, Leto only dabbles in minor elements of this, possibly as being a rock star in Russia isn’t quite as glamorous and glitzy as it is in the west. There are no mansions, flash cars, groupies, and entourages for Naumenko, he’s as normal as can be; even the drink and drugs aspect is downplayed and hardly a factor.

Driving Naumenko, Tsoi and others is purely music, something the economy of the black and white photography heightens in reflecting the simplicity of the guitars and vocals genesis of their classic songs. Had this been a glossy full colour affair, I doubt we would have got the same feeling of earnestness and passion these guys put into the music, and as it transpires their lyrics.

Naumenko’s being older (at just 26) means he was weaned on Dylan, Bowie, Bolan, Lou Reed, and others – in fact, he was known for translating their lyrics, and keeping the basic melody enough to avoid plagiarism – whilst Tsoi was influenced by the energy and angry lyrics of punk as much as he was Naumenko (in this story at least). Tosi was the voice of the new generation in Naumenko’s estimation, reflecting the frustrations of the Russian youth but wording it in a way that wouldn’t upset the Party censors.

Meanwhile, Natacha is smitten with Tsoi’s quiet, sensitive songwriter aura which sits in contrast to Naumenko’s broodier but louder personality. As mother to their son, Natacha has a lot at stake if she acts on her impulses, but out of respect, she ask for Namenko’s permission to kiss Viktor, which he grants. He doesn’t want to lose Natacha but he also wants to continue to nurture Tsoi’s career, having got him a record deal and a spot at the club.

Rock and Roll isn’t meant to be this considerate, but then again this didn’t happen, as Skeptic is often on hand to explain with a placard at the end of a particular chaotic and fanciful episode. A scene on a train when Punk is beaten up by two KGB agents then runs wild singing Psycho Killer didn’t happen; nor did a bus full of people serenade Tsoi and Natacha with Iggy Pop’s The Passenger, or the crowd at the club defy orders and go wild to the music.

Viewers of a certain age will enjoy the soundtrack featuring cuts by Bowie, T-Rex, et al, though mileage will vary regarding the offbeat interpretations of their works, like the abstruse reading of Reed’s Perfect Day. But punk was about challenging convention, so it is hard to complain about how Serebrennikov uses these songs here.

Sadly, neither Tsoi or Naumenko got to see this tribute to them – Tsoi died in 1990 aged 28 in a car accident, Naumenko from cerebral haemorrhage aged 36 a year later. The foundation of the film’s script is based on the recollections of the real Natacha, though the fictitious affair with Tsoi angered some of Naumenko’s former bandmates, garnering the film some controversy before its release.

I doubt this will have any bearing on how Leto is received by foreign audiences – it’s not as if Hollywood biopic have never deviated from the facts – but if you want a spirited, visually different music film experience, and a lesson in Russian rock history, give this a spin!