On a long enough timeline, every rock scene of the 20th century will get the requiem it deserves. Manchester got “24 Hour Party People,” the American Midwest got “Almost Famous,” and now the Leningrad underground gets Kirill Serebrennikov’s “Leto,” which is as much an impressionist portrait of the Soviet Union on the brink of Perestroika as it is an elegiac tribute to the singing revolutionaries who helped pave the way. The film is all too happy to fudge some of the details and get a bit cute with the classics (often taking a sledgehammer directly to the fourth wall), but its freewheeling spirit results in an ecstatic look back at a brief window of time between oppressions. It’s a shambling, transportive, and semi-tragic story about a fleeting past where anything seemed possible.
Serebrennikov — whose 2016 breakthrough “The Student” was also obliquely critical of Russia’s current regime — doesn’t bother to introduce many of the the major players, or spell out the conditions that galvanized them together. To some extent, that’s because Russian audiences still know this stuff by heart, since the film instantly calls to mind the bittersweet tune from which it takes its title. Beyond that, “Leto” is free to dive headfirst into this history because Serebrennikov’s camera shows us everything we need to know, sublimating an entire generation of context into the fluid tracking shots that take us back in time.
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It’s all right there in the opening sequence, which sets the scene in luscious black and white. We come in through the bathroom window, a dreamy and eagerly rebellious long-take leading us inside a Leningrad rock club. Natasha (Mary Elizabeth Winstead doppelgänger Irina Starshenbaum) and her friends hide in the stalls to avoid the manager — like most of the older people in the movie, he’s a total buzzkill, too loyal to the Party to let these kids have any fun. “Underground” but not out of sight, the concert is policed by the State within an inch of its life. Everyone’s a cop. The audience is forced to stay in their seats, unable to so much as tap their toes or hold up a sign without being side-eyed by security.
The whole tone is wildly inconsistent with the punk energy that’s wafting off the Fassbinder lookalike onstage like the stench of yesterday’s liquor. Mike Naumenko (Roman Bilyk) is Natasha’s boyfriend and baby daddy, and also the closest thing this music community has to a core. It’s a beguiling, almost neutered portrayal. On the one hand, Mike is the man — hiding behind his aviators and a semi-constant shrug, he brings people together, and has the power to send them away. On the other hand, he keeps a tight lid on his anti-establishment agenda, and suffocates his inner anarchist so effectively that Serebrennikov is forced to invent a fantasy sequence for the guy to rock out.
In fact, the closest thing this shapeless nostalgia porn has to a plot involves Naumenko allowing himself to be cuckolded by the mega-talented musician he’s managing for free. That would be the great Viktor Tsoi (Teo Yoo), a soft-spoken Soviet-Korean dreamboat whose talent humbles everyone around him. He wanders across Mike’s clique on a beach one summer night, and it feels like fate; it ignites one of those strumming montages where lanky and beautiful young people rip off their clothes and run through the surf. They jump through bonfires in the buff. Their naked skin tells them they’re at the start of something special — the vibe is so pure that nobody dares touch each other.
“Leto” is at its best when trying to exhume a certain mood, to bottle the energy people like Viktor and Mike left behind. Given that Serebrennikov was placed under house arrest towards the end of the shoot (for “embezzlement,” but really for just being one of Putin’s most effective pests), it’s easy to understand why he might want to celebrate some of Russia’s most beloved revolutionaries. Likewise, it’s easy to understand his (over)eagerness to romanticize their willingness to reconnect with the West, a tendency that results in a handful of cover performances cheesy enough to trigger memories of Julie Taymor’s “Across the Universe” (shudder).
An argument with an old man on a train sparks a very bloody “Psycho Killer” singalong, electric and embarrassing in equal measure. Later, when Mike decides that he’d rather let another man sleep with his girlfriend than curtail anyone’s freedom, a frustrated older woman treats him to a strange rendition of Lou Reed’s “Perfect Day” in the middle of a downpour. The irony only enhances the cutesiness of it all, as does Serebrennikov’s decision to invent a character who’s only purpose is to wink at the camera and remind us that we’re not watching a documentary.
These breaks from reality, however rapturous, feel uncomfortably (and incongruously) intimate in a film that otherwise keeps a respectful distance from its characters; a film that allows them to just sort of be. Their happiness is magical but unextraordinary — it’s gone now, but it could return at any time we’re ready to receive it. It could be ours. That’s what makes it beautiful. For all of its candied sketchiness, “Leto” nails the feeling — or the memory — of finding yourself in a world that isn’t afraid of who you might become. It’s a messy reverie for modern Russia, a gentle plea for kids to hear the silence Viktor sings about and fill it with some noise of their own.
“Leto” premiered in Competition at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.