by Richard von Busack
Valery Todorovsky’s energetic Russian hit musical Hipsters (tickets here) concerns the “stilyagi”—the few but proud counter-culturists of Moscow in 1955. In Moscow, clean cut Mels (Anton Shagin) is running with his Party-member girlfriend Katya (Evegina Brik) in the uniformed scissor-squads giving unwanted haircuts to the Elvis-style pompadours they encounter.
During one patrol, Mels meets scenester “Good Time Polly” (Oksana Akinshina) and drops out to join her and her gang of mohair-clad loungers with sky-high haircuts. He learns everything he needs to know about dancing (hot steps like “The Atomic,” “The Canadian” and “The Hamburger”) as well as the art of buying flashy clothes on the black market.
The king of the gang is Fyodor, who calls himself Fred (Maksim Matveev); he’s the pampered son of Soviet diplomats. Eventually, the group’s public escapades inflame the ever-watching government.
Todorovsky shoots with a lot of visual verve, honoring Scorsese and De Palma—particularly in an across the ceiling crawl to peek into a warren of rooms in a collective apartment house.
This anatomy-of-a-scene movie bears the most comparison to Julien Temple’s sour-sweet Absolute Beginners. And as in the Temple movie, the songs (by Konstantin Meladze) aren’t equal to the visual dash the director demonstrates. To grossly generalize, Russian music is more complex than western pop. The closer the tunes get to the downbeat Slavic sound, the better they are: as in a lament by a drunk selling his saxophone and dropping out of the underground jazz life, before turning to full-time alcoholism.
Todorovsky calls this “the first real Russian musical since the 1940s”; he could be forgetting the cinematic trad of Communist musicals, analyzed in 1997’s documentary East Side Story.
The film is some small part of the movement to reassess the 20 years of life since the USSR ended, and it’s an especially visually flamboyant example of what they call “ostalgia” (or “eastern nostalgia”) in Germany: meaning the ambiguous feelings about what’s been lost since the USSR went away.
What is most exciting here is the details of how the other half lived, or tried to, under the post-Stalin years. Who knows: the tips of how to bootleg a jazz album using a discarded x-ray photo as acetate might come in handy if Santorum is elected.