Leto movie review: Kirill Serebrennikov's livewire musical biopic on Kino’s Viktor Tsoi exudes a joyous sense of freedom
The story of Leto's production is a haunting mirror to the film’s own take on artistic movement as response to authoritarianism.
The musical biopic grew so tired and formulaic that it was parodied to perfection over a decade ago. The 2007 comedy Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story replicates the familiar conventions of the genre using fictitious characters, but it does this so perfectly that even actual musical biopics like Bohemian Rhapsody now feel like Walk Hard knock-offs. The same-ness often stems from safe-ness, wherein subjects are treated as revered cultural touchstones, rather than anything resembling real, complicated human beings, and their stories are usually about fulfilling expectations — expectations that black-and-white Russian film Leto (Summer) completely shatters. What’s more, the story of its production is a haunting mirror to the film’s own take on artistic movement as response to authoritarianism.
Directed by Kirill Serebrennikov and written with writer-couple Mikhail Idov and Lili Idova, Leto is a livewire of a movie that resides halfway between docudrama and full-blown musical. It’s as much about people as it is about time and place — the revolutionary Leningrad rock scene of the 1980s — but moreover, rather than simply re-creating notes and performances, the film is about bringing to life the feelings evoked during a key moment in history that caused a seismic shift in Soviet music.
It’s also the kind of film that, were you unaware of Kino and Viktor Tsoi, you probably wouldn’t know was a biopic at all — in fact, few of Kino’s well-known songs make an appearance — which, if nothing else, indicates just how far-flung it is from its sanitised Hollywood siblings.
Korean-German actor Teo Yoo plays Tsoi, a character who doesn’t show up until about thirty minutes into the film. Prior to his arrival (as a rookie in search of a voice and a band name), Leto is about Akvarium and Zoopark lead singer Mike Naumenko (played by Zveri vocalist Roman Bilyk), an older rock star who takes it upon himself to guide the new generation.
The plot is largely about Tsoi and Naumenko’s influence on one another, and about the complicated romance they both shared with Naumenko’s wife Natalia (Irina Starshenbaum); where Naumenko represents the conventional stability of adulthood, Tsoi is the boyish fling; where Naumenko wants to play for sold-out stadiums, Tsoi would rather have intimacy. These characters aren’t the pop culture epitaphs of American biopics, but living, breathing people with clashing egos and insecurities that are more than just minor hurdles to be overcome before a big performance. Yet the film exudes poetic playfulness at every turn, refusing to make bitter enemies out of its leading men. Rather, they’re comrades in the same battle for the soul of Russian culture, and they have to learn to live with each other.
Naumenko and his group play for a local rock venue that takes music a little too seriously; cheering, letting loose and all the wild, counter-cultural ideas associated with the era are banned, in favour of a lifeless experience with polite applause. The venue is a microcosm of the larger USSR, which enacts its iron will on Naumenko and several other musicians (including Tsoi) later in the film, when they’re confronted on a train for their appearance and general demeanour, and subsequently beaten by police for being cultural traitors.
It’s here that the film bursts to life in the most unexpected of ways, turning the real events on their head in favour of raw musical escapism. One unnamed character seems to represent a modern-day perspective; he dresses like you or I might and speaks directly to the camera, and in moments of wish fulfilment, he holds up blood-red signs that pierce the greyscale palette and remind the audience that “This Didn’t Actually Happen” — the “this” in question is the rockers fighting back, and causing intoxicating mayhem as they sing 'Psycho Killer' by the Talking Heads.
The screen becomes littered with hand-drawn intrusions, from visual noise to anarchic graffiti, and the stencilled bits even spill over the edges of the 2.35:1 letter-boxed frame, onto the black bars above and below (the film is projected in a narrower aspect ratio). The camera follows the characters in lengthy takes as they lunge back at the police, their noses bloody, as each image begins to feel like a shot of adrenaline…until, of course, the world snaps back to reality, and our unnamed modern guide reminds us, once again, that we’re witnessing fiction (a shield from criticisms of inaccuracy, perhaps?).
This sort of Brechtian wink tends to grow tired when employed as a running joke, but in Leto, Serebrennikov wields it with precision. He repeatedly yanks us back from escapism as if to embody the state itself, like a stark reminder that fantastical escape is just that — a fantasy — when oppressive forces try to stomp out artistic expression. What’s more, the choice of jukebox soundtrack (The Talking Heads, Lou Reed, Iggy Pop, and so on) adds a vital dimension that musical biopics often ignore: these were Tsoi and Naumenko’s influences. This music shaped their own, and it shapes their psyche and the way they see the world.
As if to prove Serebrennikov’s thesis about art’s ability to shift culture and perspectives, the director was arrested by the Russian government midway through production, followed by a disinformation campaign to discredit the film. The reasons given had to do with finance fraud, though those involved with Leto (and those familiar with the methodology of the modern Russian state) seem to think otherwise.
Serebrennikov was placed under house arrest for two whole years, so the film had to be completed using the notes he left behind; what exists now is a slightly truncated version of what he intended, but it feels momentous right from the get-go. It even incorporates notes of its own on-screen; handwritten lyrics unfurl on either side of documentary footage of the characters — the rare scenes in colour — and the film’s musical asides rival even those of Holy Motors in terms of visceral energy.
The film has since competed for the Palme d’Or at Cannes, and was even named one of Cahiers du Cinéma’s Top Ten for 2018. Its accolades, coupled with Serebrennikov’s eventual release last month, feel like major victories for the world of art (and for Russian art especially), though the film undeniably speaks for itself. Its boundary-breaking musical numbers feel like the spirit of rebellious creativity embodied, and every frame exudes a joyous sense of freedom.
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