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by Jay Seaver

"Back in the U.S.S.R. (before the Beatles)."
4 stars

SCREENED AT INDEPENDENT FILM FESTIVAL BOSTON 2010: It seems like every time I've seen western culture sneaking behind the iron curtain, it's been about The Beatles. Of course, youth chafing at authority existed well before the Fab Four, and represents more than mere fandom. So let's take a look at 1950s Moscow, where despite the monolithic image presented to the west, a subculture of youngsters goes against the gray orthodoxy of the Soviet Union. They're called "stilyagi", or "hipsters". (Doesn't that sound like great fodder for a musical? Good, because that's what director Valeriy Todorovskiy has for us.)

We see the garishly-dressed hipsters at a party, but it's not going to last long - a group of young Communist Party members led by the severe Katya (Evgeniya Khirivskaya) are coming to break it up, forcibly giving haircuts to the long-hairs. Some bolt over a wall, and star athlete Mels (Anton Shagin) gives chase - but when he finally catches up to one, it's Polza (Oksana Akinshina), and he's instantly smitten. He not only lets her get away, but asks Boris (Igor Voynarovskiy), a former classmate who goes by "Bob" when hanging out with other hipsters, how to get in the group and get close to her. But can he compete with "Fred" (Maksim Matveev), a handsome hipster whose well-connected father brings him a lot of privileges?

I don't know whether any of the architects of glasnost and perestroika were hipsters in their youth. It doesn't matter as far as the movie is concerned; in fact, it makes things a little more poignant - we know that the place they live in will either punish them or force them to conform, just as we know that the West that they are trying to emulate in many ways only exists in their heads. The Soviet Union is a gray, paranoid, joyless place, and just wearing bright colors or playing the saxophone is seen as a challenge to the the State, even if the people doing so are good Communists otherwise. Hipsters is a coming-of-age story, but that can be a grimmer thing than American audiences are used to; adulthood does not offer autonomy to balance responsibility; the fathers who smile at their sons' indulgences know this.

That's a fatalistic attitude for a musical to have, but this is a Russian one. It makes for a unique experience - musicals are inherently exaggerated and metaphorical, but Todorovskiy and company have a stark honesty. In the classic Hollywood musicals, or the contemporary ones made in India, the characters sing and dance in part as a surrogate for making love; Hipsters doesn't hide the sex. It also has a lot of different uses for the musical numbers - sometimes the characters are just up on the stage playing jazz; sometimes the characters' mouths aren't moving, and it's almost a daydream; sometimes it's a traditional showstopper. Sometimes its several of these things at once. The songs themselves tend to have a good beat, and lyrics which seem reasonably clever in subtitles. They're poppy, but fittingly a bit off at times, the hipsters doing their best imitation of jazz and rock & roll.

And for all that talking of what a grim backdrop the movie has, the characters are thoroughly charming. We like Anton Shagin's Mels right away; when he catches Polza, he doesn't just fall in love at first sight but also realizes that being a apparatchik goon does not come naturally to him. For all that he's handsome and athletic, he is absolutely a bit of a square among the hipsters, but a likable dork, even when reality hits him later in the movie and he's got to be a little angry, though not in such a way that reminds us of the people he's rebelling against. Polza is played by Oksana Akinshina (most-seen by North American audiences in one of the Bourne movies, but best-remembered for Lilja 4-Ever), who does a fine job of making her flawed and human as well as a mysterious and perfect draw for Mels. She's complex and real enough to earn our forgiveness when she needs it.

Igor Voynarovskiy is fine comic relief as "Bob", and Maksim Matveev has the right blend of charm and fecklessness as "Fred". I love the little performances by their fathers: Oleg Yankovskiy as Fred's father clearly remembers his own irresponsible youth fondly, but is monitoring his son's closely; Sergey Garmash as a working stiff taking a vicarious joy in what Mels does. He's got a great scene toward the end where he never loses the twinkle in his eye but also lays out that he, Mels, and everyone else in the room is going to do the right thing, even though doing the other would be a lot easier. I also kind of love Evgeniya Khirivskaya as Katya; she represents everything that is wrong with the Soviet Union, but she's individual and human enough to get us to worry about whether she's salvageable or not.

Sadly, we lose track of that, along with a few other plot threads, while others take up more space than they need. Todorovskiy and writer Yuriy Korotkov create a bunch of great characters and stage the movie very well, but there doesn't seem to be any good way to end it. What they do isn't bad, and thematically works rather well, but Hipsters is stretched out just enough in spots that I would have liked something stronger.

Making musicals is hard, though, often an all-or-nothing endeavor (they seldom seem to be average movies). That "Hipsters" works this well for a guy in America who isn't particularly fond of the form, has to get by on subtitled lyrics, and is likely ignorant of a great deal of what the filmmakers were referencing (I only know about bootleg records made of X-rays because I saw them mentioned in a Beatles documentary a few years ago)... Well, I think that means they've done a pretty good job on it.

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originally posted: 05/11/10 04:21:18
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2009 Toronto International Film Festival For more in the 2009 Toronto International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2009 Chicago International Film Festival For more in the 2009 Chicago International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: Independent Film Festival Boston 2010 For more in the Independent Film Festival Boston 2010 series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2010 Provincetown International Film Festival For more in the 2010 Provincetown International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2010 Seattle International Film Festival For more in the 2010 Seattle International Film Festival series, click here.

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  DVD: 19-Feb-2013



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