Arts & Events

Hipsters: From Russia with Jazz Opens January 13

Reviewed By Gar Smith
Friday January 06, 2012 - 10:33:00 AM

Hipsters, the first Russian musical in 50 years, has won a slew of Nikas (the Russian "Oscar") and has been an audience favorite at film festivals around the world. Hipsters (Stilyagi, in Russian) is set in Moscow in 1959, a time when owning an Elvis Presley LP can get a kid busted. As one character warns, "You can get 10 years in jail for kowtowing to Western lifestyles." 

Valery Todorovsky's Hipsters is a strange beast of a film. Hipsters bristles with great direction and energetic cinematography but the film is populated by some really bizarre characters. Students of Soviet cinema will derive special enjoyment from Todorovsky's movie. As the film notes point out: 'Retro-musical scenes alternate with sequences in which the director presents with witty hyperbole, the state of mind and lifestyle of various segments of the Soviet population. The cinematography often parodies past cinematic styles of Soviet realism and propaganda films." 

(A personal aside: Perhaps I have some previously undetected phobia but, while watching the film, I found myself thinking: "Some Russian actors have Really Wide Mouths." The young women, especially. Watching a trio of red-lipped ladies singing into a shared microphone and bobbing their heads at the camera in tight focus, I felt like a vulnerable guppy about to be devoured by a school of lipsticked piranhas.) 

But let's get back to the movie. 

Mels (played by Anton Shagin, Russia's answer to Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a sheltered Komsomol Communist Youth Organizer who has been recruited to crack down on young rebels who have adopted Western dress and secretly bopping the night away to decadent American culture. Mels (his name stands for Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin) and his posse of Komsomol commandos patrol the night looking to raid hipster dens. Armed with scissors, they are ready to enforce Party Values by making sure the long-hairs come a-cropper. 

Predictably, Mels meets a Hipster lass named Poliya and falls for her. She red-stamps a kiss on his cheek and he's a goner. Poliya (Oksana Akinshina) goes by the Western name "Poly," so Mels shortens his name to "Mel," begs to learn how to dance Fifties bop steps and becomes a jazz-infected Hipster who winds up with a six-inch-tall pompadour that would make TinTin green with envy. 

When he drops his bland Komosol garb for bright, tight pants, a blazing blazer, pastel shirts and wicked painted Hipster neckties, Mels suffers the taunts of neighbors and former friends. But nobody tries to arrest him. Although the film shows the Hipsters being attacked as "depraved monkeys" in the pages of Pravda, they seem to be tolerated. Maybe that's because, while Mel is a working-class schlub who has to haul goods on his back to earn the kopeks to buy his fancy dancing boots, many of these "rebels" are clearly the children of privilege. 

Fred (Maksim Matveev), the Hipsters' Chris Isaak-like leader lives in an opulent high-rise apartment with his wealthy, well-connected parents. (His father, a powerful Party official, secretly supports Fred's excesses and confesses that he, too, liked to "boogie" when he was young.) And when these Hipsters go out to get down, they head for a block of downtown Moscow with a swinging hot-spot called "Broadway," whose gold-framed entryways are controlled by uniformed guards. Our "rebels" are always assured of entry because Fred is there to flash his "reservation" – a palm-load of Soviet currency. 

In a further act of defiance, Mel buys a saxophone on the black market. The previous owner, a down-and-out musician, warns that the State only accepts accordions and fiddles as "safe" instruments: owning a saxophone is tantamount to owning "a concealed weapon." And then he breaks into song while a barroom of boozers join in, swinging their beer mugs. 

Thanks to the magic of movie musicals, Mel picks up the sax, toots out his first stuttering attempt at a song, and immediately blossoms into an accomplished jazz saxophonist. This leads to a wonderful film moment. Mel is sitting alone, playing "Summertime," as the camera drifts across the room to discover another saxophonist smiling back and joining in. As the camera continues to swing about the small room, it passes behind the shadow of Mel's back and, when it emerges, the Russian and American hipster have been transported to the roof of a skyscraper in the heart of Manhattan. But it's not just a generic rendition of the Big Apple that spins below in all its glittering brilliance; this is the New York City of 1955. There are no Twin Towers in the background but there is a large illuminated billboard advertising a performance by jazz singer Sarah Vaughn! 

Mel and Ploy fall in love (abetted by a hooded "free-market" enabler who haunts the alleyway ready to sell anything from saxophones, to Charlie Parker albums, to keys to a low-rent love-nest). There will be a baby but that will bring another surprise. And there will be more songs and rooms filling with young people dancing madly. 

Mel will be called before an assembly of his Komsomol comrades and stripped of his Party identity in a chilling scene with an amphitheater of hundreds of identically dressed youngsters singing about the need to maintain "the chains" and banging their desktops in unison for emphasis. 

The final ten minutes consists of a single seen that begins with Mel, resplendent in his hipster outfit and towering pompadour, walking alone on a vast, empty Moscow street that stretches for blocks. As he walks (and begins to sing), he is slowly joined by small groups of Goths and hippies who materialize on the sidelines. The camera dances in and out and among the crowd until, in the last seconds, it pulls above the mob, turns 180 degrees and looks back down the barren streets -- which are somehow now filled with about 15,000 people dancing and singing the chorus of closing song: "Go play!" This finale is predictable, cornball, cliché and absolutely breathtaking. 

But beyond the demonstrable joy of the closing scene, one might be left to ponder the overall message. Is the greatest accomplishment of the human spirit to be found in exercising the freedom to dress in chains and wear your died hair in spikes? Certainly the desire to serve the community of humankind deserves as much respect as the desire to set oneself apart as an individual. Especially when this "declaration of individuality" involves adopting the shared trappings of shared "outlaw" lifestyle. 

You can share that debate for after the film. Hipsters is an experience worth seeking out. Besides, if you don't see this film, you might have to wait another 50 years before you see the next musical from Moscow.