Leto (Summer) starts with a homage to The Beatles; adoring fans literally come through the bathroom window to watch their favourite band playing live. But this is no ordinary rock concert — the fans all sit down and clap along like schoolchildren. This is a rock ‘club,’ which functions like a traditional establishment seen in the Soviet era — bands must apply to play, with their lyrics double-checked by censors before they can be approved. One plucky girl holds up a poster, but is immediately told to take it down.
This opening scene is emblematic of Leto as a whole, taking a bittersweet look at the development of rock music under the Soviet Union. It is mostly the story of two men — Mike (Roman Bilyk), the old guard playing with the band in the opening scene, and Victor (Teo Yoo), the far more talented musician who is taken under his wing. Director Kirill Serebrennikov loosely weaves this rock biopic story with that of a love triangle, with Mike’s girlfriend, Natacha (Irina Starshenbaum), falling in love with Victor. Starshenbaum — famous in Russia for her lead role in the big-budget sci-fi fantasy Attraction — does a great job with the material here, but sadly she is seen too much in relation to the men as opposed to an interesting character in her own right. Still, this is one of my only criticisms of an otherwise absorbing tale.
Shot in widescreen black-and-white, Leto is gorgeous to look at, deploying long takes to immerse us in the action. Every now and then the monochrome is interspersed with home video footage à la Raging Bull, which helps to add to the nostalgic vibe of the story. Yet, the film really takes off when it suddenly threatens to become a musical, the realistic fabric of the narrative torn by non-diegetic performances of rock classics such as “Psycho Killer,” “The Passenger,” and “A Perfect Day.” These are the best moments, featuring off-tune passers-by singing in English, with added rotoscoped animation sprinkled in. We are eventually sent crashing back to earth, as an interlocutor stares at the camera and tells us that none of this actually happened.
This is more than just some postmodern trickery — its a signal that the freedom of youth, such as the spirit of 68’ or 77’, was essentially denied to these people, lamenting for the country that it could have been. Therefore, if the characters in Leto feel too passive in their passions, and ultimately their goals, this is more of an accurate reflection than any false biopic could be.
Contemporary Russian cinema is known for its semi-nostalgic yet melancholic look at secret artistic happenings during the Soviet era. The immensely popular Hipsters went back to the 50s to depict the secret Swing era, while the more recent Dovlatov painted a biopic of a great writer with his hands tied by the Government. Leto is given an extra layer of meaning, however, as director Kirill Serebrennikov is currently under house arrest due to charges of embezzlement. This gives it an urgent parallel to happenings in Russia today, especially considering how the government treated Pussy Riot after they performed in Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Savior. Despite the questionable quality of their music, music is seen as a galvanising force for Russian youth once again.
The Soviet Union had a complicated relationship with rock and roll; records from The Beatles were allowed to be bought and sold, as they were working-class boys who sang about falling in love (at least at first), while songs from the Rolling Stones, singing about sex and drugs, were finally banned from the country after a disastrous concert in Warsaw.
Music finally played an essential role in ending communism. In the late 80s, it was fashionable for the rock stars of the day — Neil Young, David Bowie, Bruce Springsteen, and most infamously, David Hasseholff — to perform in West Berlin to promote the idea of freedom. Sadly for the heroes of our story, the renaissance came too late, meaning that they never had the best chance to share their music with the wider world. Leto honours that music (which is also quite great by the way), rescuing them from obscurity and giving them the story they deserve.