Adding to the number of black-and-white devotees, Kirill Serebrennikov cooks a gorgeously looking film too self-conscious to be gratifying.
If you live in a bubble almost untouched by music, you might watch Kirill Serebrennikov’s LETO in its entirety without even blinking at the idea that there might be some sort of authenticity in its narration. Although based on the memories of Natalia Naumenko, wife of Russian rock musician and songwriter Mike Naumenko, LETO is hardly true to facts. Instead, the film prefers celebrating the meek love triangle between its main characters on the backdrop of the Leningrad underground music scene of the 80s.
From the first shot, LETO introduces itself like a proper art-house film in appearance. After the initial establishing shot of the run-down, industrial back-end of a music hall where three women try to sneak in, a smooth and dynamic long take steals the show. Following these women slipping through the window and playing hide-and-seek with a couple of inspectors, we’re lead right onto the stage where Mike (Roman Bylik) is performing with his band. If the introduction looks quite powerful, there is then the pan away from the charismatic leader to the motionless crowd, painfully holding back on their need to groove. An intimidating invigilator crosses the frame to inspect the audience while looking for the minimal signs of an infraction. No head shaking is allowed. No swinging carried by the music. “You’re trash” sings Mike in a husky voice while a shiver runs down the spine of a suited guy, who could be the venue manager or the head inspector. In such circumstances, foot-tapping becomes a truly subversive act.
Repression and an oppressive political atmosphere are basic elements for a film set in the Russia of the 80s. Nevertheless, the social climate offers many a cue to screenwriters Serebrennikov, Idov, and Idova, who turned an episode of violent nationalism on a train into one of the most entertaining and visually satisfactory sing-along scenes one could hope for (humming Talking Heads’ Psycho Killer is definitely a plus). However, at its core LETO has two men dreaming of basking in the light of success, writing memorable songs and satisfying the urge of their creative needs. One of them is the man the film opens on, Mike, the other is Viktor Tsoi (Teo Yoo), one of the most influential rising stars of the Soviet music scene, who died at 28 in 1990. As soon as Viktor enters the scene and meets with Mike, it becomes clear that the most important dynamic powering the film is the one between them. No matter the poorly developed and scarcely captivating love story bringing Viktor and Natasha (Irina Starshenbaum) together, their longing and unfulfilled love never gains enough traction to keep the audience sympathetic and entertained. On the contrary, the tension fuelled by a tender brotherly affection shared by the two men keeps things interesting as Mike soon stops seeing Viktor as some kind of a pupil and starts treating him like a peer whom he respects and admires.
Featuring an extraordinary set of rock cult tracks by Iggy Pop, Marc Bolan, Lou Reed, and David Bowie on top of Naumenko’s and Tsoi’s hits, LETO is true music heaven. Beats from the West – “the enemy” as the propaganda likes to say – are both a blessing and a curse. They surely inspire artists like Mike, but they also set a bar sometimes far too high to not affect one’s self-esteem. Moving to the main characters, Natacha’s development is unfortunately too predictable to make her interesting, which is a pity given that she’s the only female character to have a meaningful amount of lines. With respect to the male leads, Mike shows a nuanced personality and a plethora of insecurities, all of them stemming from his constantly comparing himself to far more established artists, but Viktor appears too shallow to be remarkable. Whether the fault is to be found in Yoo’s lack of stage presence or simply in poor writing skills, the film’s strong suits lie somewhere else. Like in the captivating music sequences, or the multiple breakings of the fourth wall accompanied by the iterated catchphrase “this did not happen” mocking the more unorthodox and undemocratic erasure of dissident acts. Other than these meagre consolations though, there’s sadly not much more on offer on LETO’s plate.