It's always sunny in Saint Petersburg
The editorial style of this website is not exactly unbiased: in essence, music reviews are subjective. Also, I make no secret of my worship for certain bands. But this post may even be more biased than that: I speak Russian and lived next to five years in Moscow, hence a certain penchant for Russian culture in general, and music in particular. Obviously.
And, last week, I got lucky: a new film entitled Leto (“summer” in Russian) just happened to be released in France. Directed by embattled filmmaker Kirill Serebrennikov, the film depicts the early years (maybe even year) in the career of Victor Tsoï and his band, Kino. Now, to be clear: Kino is arguably the best and most important rock band to come out of Russian since the 1980’s (and therefore before). And Tsoï, the band’s leader and central songwriter, is quite objectively the biggest rock icon Russia has ever seen.
Granted, the country had less time to produce any such icons, still: in the early 80’s, Victor Tsoï and his comrades managed to create a sound that both echoed the post punk / new wave trends then playing in the West, yet infusing the “Russian soul” factor, aka a rather dark tone in both music and lyrics. That tone is evident in Tsoï’s singing style, in which you can easily find references to the Russian "bards” such as Vladimir Vyssotksi, that generation of musicians that braved the regime from the 60’s to tell the story of the Russian people in an unabashedly realistic way. And often paying the price for it. Again, this is Russia.
Leto is an interesting film, somewhat surprising in its mix of historical and fantasy sequences, beautifully shot in black and white by utterly convincing actors. The biggest surprise comes after realizing the one playing Tsoï is actually Korean and doesn’t speak a word of Russian (Tsoï was of Korean decent from his father’s side). That never shows: a few traveling shots of 80’s Saint Petersburg in the summertime only make you want to board a plane (or, rather, a time machine) and experience that vibrant want for artistic and personal freedom, this new burst of creativity along with a societal craving for change. After all, one of Kino’s biggest hits was a song called “Хочу перемен!” — I want changes…
The story revolves around the relationship between Tsoï, Mike, an already established rock musician, and his wife Natasha. Mike swiftly becomes a guide to the young Tsoï, encouraging his burgeoning career, while Tsoï and Natasha become dangerously close. This comes to a rather undramatic end, in a way often seen in Russia, where romantic entanglements never seem as bad as other pitfalls one may encounter in life — poverty, cold, hunger, you pick…
But the true star of the film is Kino’s early music, which I will admit I was not enough familiar with. We hear most of the band’s first album being played out throughout the movie, highlighting the raw greatness of then 19-year old Tsoï. A particular note goes — in my very humble opinion — for “Когда то ты был битником” (Once you were a beatnik), a beautifully simple song with a drum loop, a couple of chords and a defiant tone, in many ways Russia’s answer to early Velvet Underground offerings.
The first performance of the song in a rock club is wonderfully depicted in the film, with Mike grabbing a guitar to play along the then-two members of Kino (eventually, there were three). It’s not the best song ever written, not even by Kino (there were so many… in so few years), yet it conveys a sense of urgency and immediacy rarely heard in the more bourgeois blues/rock from the West. Further proof that Marx and Lenin had an impact, if anyone still doubted that.
In short, Leto is a highly enjoyable journey set in a decomposing USSR, as told through the coming of age of its biggest rockstar to ever live. In even shorter — go see it.