Kirill Serebrennikov induced in his Cannes audiences last night a kind of Russian saudade, a melancholic yearning for a time and place and situation of which most were pretty much unaware before the movie began. It’s a seductive but in certain ways opaque love letter to the past, a fictionalisation of the director’s life experiences as a passionate twentysomething connoisseur of western rock; a rebellion now even more resonant with the director still under house arrest in Russia.
Leto means “summer” or “summertime” in Russian – I kept thinking of the summertime that Oasis says is in bloom, although that’s not in this movie’s time-frame. It feels like an almost storyless evocation of mood, a two-hour introduction to an imaginary larger narrative of change and loss that begins after the closing credits have finished. And despite the title, it’s a distinctively wintry movie, with some longueurs and mood swings to nowhere.
The setting is Leningrad (as it then was) in the early 1980s, when there was a fiercely committed rock and pop scene, with devotees fanatically consuming the latest imported albums and audiocassette bootlegs from the west, from the classics like the Beatles, Dylan, Velvet Underground, Bowie and the Doors, through to punk and new wave masters like the Sex Pistols, the Clash, and Blondie; just reciting those names was enough to send you into a kind of trance. This was the generation that waited in line for the new Stones LP on vinyl, not the new iPad on which tens of thousands of songs could be casually played at a click.
Russian bands got to perform at Communist Party-licensed clubs, which censored the lyrics and employed hatchet-faced goons to stop the young fans doing anything more than bopping sedately in their seats and applauding decorously at the end of each song. But in forbidding western cover versions, the state was at least doing its bit to encourage indigenous Soviet rock’n’roll: there is a toe-curling moment when someone holds up a Brezhnev pamphlet entitled On Youth.
Serebrennikov shows that rock’n’roll was a real vocation. These people were like the early Christians, worshipping in secret. And what they were doing was removing the first bricks from the Berlin Wall. The alpha male in this world is Mike (Roman Bilyk), a singer with a wildly popular band who lives with his beautiful girlfriend, Natasha (Irina Starshenbaum), and their baby in a cramped shared apartment. With his sunglasses and longish hair, the rock singer that Mike most resembles, incidentally, is Mud lead singer Les Gray. But there is a newcomer, Viktor (Teo Yoo) who hero-worships Mike and has a band of his own. Natasha takes a shine to Viktor, and pretty soon they are in a Patty Boyd/Eric Clapton/George Harrison situation. And, all the time, their dedication to rock could cause them to be accused of being traitors and western stooges.
The very best moment in the movie comes when some of the guys are on a railway carriage, being undoubtedly pretty obnoxious, and get yelled at by a war veteran who is in a state of towering rage and contempt for their disloyal infatuation with western fripperies. At his request, a ticket inspector, or perhaps some security goon, punches one of the rockers horribly, breaking his nose. It is the cue for a fantasy version of Talking Heads’ Psycho Killer – a brilliantly aggressive rendition, in fact. There are more musical interludes, including a performance of Iggy Pop’s The Passenger, and other bizarre “it-didn’t-actually-happen” hallucinations.
There are quite a few scenes of everyone stripping off on the beach, revealing early 80s pre-gym culture bodies, and going skinny-dipping. But Leto is mostly about talking, smoking and hanging out – which is, undoubtedly, a faithful depiction of what the Russian early-80s rock scene really was about. And there were times when I thought that the film seemed to be going on for a long time but not getting anywhere, or going round in circles, like a guitar solo on the kind of prog rock album that no one in this film would ever deign to mention. Mike begins to ponder his career opportunities (which is a Clash track, come to think of it) and wonders if breaking America – that eternal dream – is feasible or even something he wants to do, given that he is very happy with is own huge prestige in the humbler parochial world of Russian rock: “It’s OK to be in the swamp if you’re No 1 toad.”
In its final bars, the movie hints obliquely at early deaths for both Mike and Viktor, but leaves open the question of whether they fulfilled their musical potential, and in fact both men are pretty opaque personalities. Leto is a film with some wonderful moments and some slightly forgettable stretches – like an album with one or two wonderful tracks.
In theater – Cinema Galeries.
VOF French/Dutch subtitles