Review: ‘Leto’ is a vibrant portrait of Leningrad’s underground ’80s rock scene
“Leto,” which means “summer” in Russian, is the title of a song that gets its hooks in you early on and won’t let go. Written and performed by Soviet musician Mike Naumenko (played by singer Roman Bilyk), the tune evokes a brief, thriving season for rock ’n’ roll in early 1980s Leningrad, which provides the setting and the subject of Kirill Serebrennikov’s dreamy and lyrical new movie. Perestroika is on the horizon, and anthems of anarchy pour into state-sponsored rock halls, where scowling killjoys in suits try in vain to keep the audience from swaying and bobbing along to the beat of a musical revolution in full swing.
That might make “Leto” sound like a searing piece of truth-to-power agitprop rather than the lovely, wistful, sometimes confusing and often captivating memory piece that it is. You may go in expecting a bit more righteous anger from Serebrennikov (“Betrayal,” “The Student”), a vocal critic of Vladimir Putin’s regime who stands accused of fraud and embezzlement — charges that he and his many supporters in the Moscow arts community have dismissed as politically motivated. (Serebrennikov was only recently freed from a long house arrest that kept him from attending “Leto’s” world premiere at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival.)
Those scanning this movie for topical subtext, for warnings of what happens when a heavy-handed government tries to stifle freedom and creativity, will have little trouble finding them. But those searching for notes of bitterness will look in vain. Serebrennikov, working with cinematographer Vladislav Opelyants, peers at this world through a veil of black-and-white nostalgia, tinted by occasional warm bursts of color and music video-style graphic curlicues. The atmosphere is thick with smoke and adrenaline, defiance and a hint of danger, but it also hums with pleasure and possibility. “Music puts you in such a good mood,” Mike sings at one point, and “Leto” proves his point several times over.
Naumenko, one of two real-life Leningrad rock legends who anchor this largely plotless, loosely fictionalized tale, is a dynamo onstage, a long-haired Soviet synthesis of some of his favorite artists, Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones and Lou Reed among them. He’s quieter away from the spotlight, peering out at the world from behind enigmatic shades and sharing a cramped apartment with his wife, Natasha (Irina Starshenbaum), and their baby. (In real life, Natasha was named Natalia, probably the story’s mildest departure from the record.)
Mike isn’t sure what to think when he first meets a moodily handsome up-and-comer named Viktor Tsoi (Korean-German actor Teo Yoo), who worships him and could well be either a friend or a rival. He turns out to be both. Viktor and Mike forge a close personal and professional bond, one that is complicated at times by the intimacy that forms between Viktor and Natasha.
But as romantic triangles go, this one is startlingly polite: Natasha spends time with Viktor and kisses him, but only after asking Mike’s permission. There are complicated currents of feeling at work here, but the characters — especially Yoo’s shyly magnetic Viktor and Starshenbaum’s radiantly watchful Natasha — never fully lower their guard, in marked contrast to the noisy, let-it-all-hang-out ethos that defines their cultural and political moment. That may be Serebrennikov’s way of allowing these real-life figures their distance, as if he wanted to capture something of their essence without deflating their mystique.
Both Naumenko and Tsoi died tragically young in the early 1990s, but their later years, including the huge popular success of Tsoi’s band Kino, are left notably unaddressed. “Leto” isn’t about a moment of glorious, triumphant rebellion; it’s about the feel and pulse of communal life and the early stirrings of protest, the initial loosening of those Brezhnev-era constraints. A fascinating scene finds the musicians trying to sneak some of their more subversive lyrics past the rock hall’s in-house censor (Yuliya Aug), a job that requires a little compromise on both sides.
There are a few glorious sequences in which Mike and the other Leningrad rockers seize their moment, using their music to stick it to the Man, defy the bureaucrats and blow their audiences’ minds. It’s telling, however, that these scenes — the most galvanizing of which is a performance of Talking Heads’ “Psycho Killer” set aboard a train, where even the wary older passengers get to join in the fun — are nearly all followed by a caveat to the effect of “this didn’t really happen.”
It’s a playful, reality-bending conceit as well as an unexpectedly poignant one. It recasts this long, lovely ramble of a picture as a story about the things its characters wish they’d done, the dreams they fell short of realizing and the lives they didn’t get to lead. For a movie about a fleeting moment, it leaves a surprisingly resilient ache.
(In Russian and English with English subtitles)
Running time: 2 hours, 6 minutes
Playing: Starts June 21; Ahrya Fine Arts by Laemmle, Beverly Hills; the Frida Cinema, Santa Ana
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