Leto

 

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Leningrad’s rock scene in the 1980s is fondly and sometimes exuberantly brought back to life.

 
Leto
  

Life in Leningrad in the second half of the 20th century was such that it was not until the 1980s that the city experienced its age of rock music at a club where Soviet musicians performed. It represented a delayed catching up on a style of western popular music which had reached them through bootleg LPs but was then allowed, albeit under controlled supervision rendering it authorised but in a sense still underground. It is this period which is evoked by Kirill Serebrennikov in his film Leto that translates as Summer. It centres on the emergence of Leningrad-born Viktor Tsoi (Tee Yoo), a young man of Korean ancestry who would come to fame with his band Kino. Also central here is a slightly older performer, Mike Naumenko (Roma Zver), who already had his own established band, Zoopark, and who helped the newcomer.

 

Leto is a strange enterprise. Both of these men would die young but in Russia Tsoi remains a famous figure, a pop artist whose appeal came to be linked to his anti-establishment songs. That fact might seem to make him a natural subject for a biopic by Serebrennikov, who was previously known to us for The Student (2016), because the filmmaker has himself antagonised the authorities and suffered at their hands - indeed, he completed Leto while under house arrest. However, while Russian audiences can bring to the film knowledge of what Tsoi came to represent, the movie is unexpectedly limited to his early career. The political aspect of his work would only come to the fore later before being cut short by his death in his car in 1990. The film contains nothing that truly points to this development so for those with limited knowledge of Tsoi what is seen on screen here simply invites us to see him as a figure representing rebellious youth in a general way.

 

Most films about Utopia look forward to a hoped-for state but, in effect, Leto sees Serebrennikov (co-author as well as director) looking back to view these hopeful, young rebels as living in an age that now feels Utopian (the film’s romanticised nostalgia makes one think of John Osborne’s play Look Back In Anger in which a fond reference to a better age in Britain, the Edwardian era, although acknowledged to be phoney is gently put aside by the remark that ‘It must have rained sometimes’). The first behalf of Leto, admirably photographed in black and white `Scope for the most part, is beguiling on these terms with much music including songs by Talking Heads and Lou Reed so much admired by the Russians. For a film that looks so realistic as in the scenes featuring the bands, the occasional insertion of stylised songs involving touches of colour and animation proves lively but arguably out of place.

 

However, what sinks the film is its excessive length (over two hours) combined with minimal narrative. There is a kind of approved romantic triangle when Naumenko accepts that his wife Natasha (Irina Starshenbaum) is attracted by Viktor Tsoi but, while the actress has presence (I even had a passing thought of Anna Karina here), this element is so undeveloped that it fails to give any dramatic drive to the film. If as much as half an hour were to be cut from the film’s second half it would be much improved. Without that drastic shortening what has earlier been an engagingly innocent film (and one that at intervals breaks the fourth wall to question its own authenticity) becomes in time a slog.

 

MANSEL STIMPSON

 

Cast: Tee Yoo, Irina Starshenbaum, Roma Zver, Philipp Andeev, Aleksandr Kuznetsov, Evgenyi Serzin, Aleksandr Gorchlin, Vasily Mikhailov, Nikita Yefremov.

 

Dir Kirill Serebrennikov, Pro Ilya Stewart, Murad Ossman, Pavel Buria and Mikhail Finogenov, Screenplay Mikhail Idov, Lili Idova and Kirill Serebrennikov, Ph Vladislav Opelyants, Pro Des Andrey Ponkratov, Ed Yuriy  Karikh, Music Roma Zver, Costumes Tatiana Dolmatovskaya.

 

Hype Film/Kinovista-MUBI.
126 mins. Russia/France. 2018. Rel: 16 August 2019. Cert. 15.