Movie Review: “LETO” reminds us that there was punk, even New Wave, in Soviet Russia

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“Punk” wasn’t music solely confined to The West. It happened behind the Iron Curtain as well. As did its offspring, New Wave.

Granted, it wasn’t always the loud, passionate and sometimes musically-inept thrashing punk of The Ramones and The Sex Pistols, or the fashion statement New Wave pop of Duran Duran and The Cars.

“Leto” is a wistful, black and white musical fantasia, a memoir of the “24 Hour Party People” school set in the grim coast-to-coast gulag that was the Soviet Union. There’s a romantic softness to its grit and a somber, observational tone to many scenes.

But every now and then, magical realism takes over and Russians on buses or trains or in phone booths launch into Lou Reed, T-Rex or “the Heads that Talk” and things get downright giddy.

Musicians and the kids who wanted to be punks got off on T-Rex, Lou Reed, “All the Young Dudes” and “The Velvets (Underground).”  You don’t have to know the bands — Kino, Zoopark et al, to follow what was happening in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, in very slow tape delay years after these movements and bands broke out in London, New York and points West.

It’s the early ’80s, the end of Breznev era, and musicians in the U.S.S.R. still have to have their songs approved in order to get the chance to play in the state operated “rock club,” where plainclothes state security officers act as ushers.

Don’t get out of your seat, don’t stand up and dance. Don’t hold up homemade posters for your idols and for the love of Mother Russia, don’t hold up a lighter and yell “FREE BIRD!”

This is an environment that Mayk Vassilievitch Naumenko (Roman Bilyk) thrives in. He wears Raybans in the Italian fashion — around the clock — and smokes in the Russian style — constantly. “Mike” and his band Zoopark own this scene.

He’s devoted to The Velvet Underground and “Berlin” era Lou Reed — music, like T-Rex, another favorite — that was seriously passe in the U.S. and Britain by then.

The fact that he’s considering covering Sweet songs — “Lies in Your Eyes” — tells you he’s out of step, which is just fine with The State.

Along come Viktor Tsoy (Tee Yoo) and Liosha (Filipp Avdeev), fans who play acoustic guitar and write biting, bitter songs about life in the Land of the Not Free, love and drinking. This is the cutting edge that Mike never found, and he’s enough of a music buff to hear it.

He doesn’t need the resident “Skeptic” in their orbit (Aleksandr Kuznetsov, funny) reminding him that Reed, Dylan, Bowie and other heroes of Western rock did cultural commentary and protest songs, and that he should be, too.

So he takes the lads under his wing. It’s just that his wife, the ravishing Natacha (Irina Starshenbaum) is quite taken with the long-haired, brooding face of artistic integity — to the point of being smitten.

Co-writer/director Kirill Serebrennikov (“The Student”) takes us into the clubs, the recording studio, the “official” meetings to get your music approved, the smoky house parties and beach bonfires of these real-life figures from the Russian music of the era.

He gives us a little hedonism, escape, sex, drugs and rock’n roll. Just enough. He uses hand-drawn animation to add “fantasy” dream elements to the story, simulated old home movies in black and white and color, and recreated Western music videos (and album covers) to create a chiaroscuro impression of a place, a time and the feeling of being young in that world.

And he and his fellow screenwriters, working from a memoir Mike’s wife Natacha wrote, find moments to bring a little musical magical realism to the enterprise. No, the scenes aren’t as gloriously over-produced as the big moments in “Rocketman.” But they’re delightful jolts, turning up just often to upend the movie’s drift toward Russian mopiness.

Kids, led by the boy Punk, prattle on (in Russian with English subtitles) about The Sex Pistols as inspiration, “the enemy’s songs,” the older folks overhearing them on the train gripe. “You are singing the pop songs of our ideological enemy!”

A beating starts, the secret police show up with their “Get your papers out”

And the Skeptic (VERY “24 Hour Party People”) tells Punk the only answer to this is a song by “the band ‘Heads that Talk.'”

The kid romps, bloody-nosed, through the train, belting out “Psycho Killer” as passengers of all ages take swings at him and sing along.

Skeptic is not quite our narrator, punctuating this moment with “This didn’t happen. Nor will it.” Later, it’s “Sadly, this did not happen. If only it had.”

All the while, the musicians are making music (very folkie/singer-songerwriter “New Romantics” stuff, mostly, little that’s punk or New Wave), experimenting in the studio — “Try ‘Mama, mama, mama’ here!” “How about a drunken chorus? You know, like The Doors did with ‘Alabama Song?'””

And Natacha openly flirts with Viktor, who remains desperate for Mike’s approval and help.

“Natacha, come, your husband’s still alive,” is all the husband can think of in response.

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“Leto” — the title means “Summer” in Russian, and is the title of one of the popish songs played here — never quite reaches the full gallop that this era and this material demands, with the Afghan War draft hanging over every young man and All the Young Dudes more concerned with dissecting Bowie’s “Aladdin Sane.”

But the musical moments stick, and the dialogue is tasty and ever-so-Russian.

“It’s bad, sad for the songs if they’re stuck in your head. Release them!”

Yes, too little changed in Mother Russia with these cultural warriors battling commissars who growl, “Soviet youths don’t need these kind of messages.” But as the Skeptic might say, it’s nice to think it could have, that the “Children of the Revolution” could have reformed their repressive State, just with their tunes.

“Leto” makes us wish for a Russian “Summer of Love” that never was.

3stars2

MPAA Rating: unrated, nudity, alcohol abuse, smoking

Cast: Teo Yoo, Irina Starshenbaum, Roman Bilyk and Aleksandr Kuznetsov

Credits: Directed by Kirill Serebrennikov, script by Mikhail Idov, Lili Idova , Ivan Kapitonov and Kirill Serebrennikov. A Gunpowder & Sky release.

Running time: 2:08

 

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