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Leto, directed by an outspoken Putin critic, is a tribute to the Soviet underground rock scene

Kirill Serebrennikov is under house arrest while his punk movie musical premieres at Cannes.

Roman Bilyk in Leto
Roman Bilyk in Leto.
HYPE Film Production
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

Kirill Serebrennikov’s punk movie-musical Leto is at Cannes, but its director isn’t. He’s under house arrest after his nonprofit was raided last summer by Russian law enforcement, allegedly because Serebrennikov is under suspicion of masterminding an embezzlement plot that caused harm to the state.

But artists and major Russian cultural figures have said they believe the raid and imprisonment are actually in retaliation for the film and theater director’s candid views on Vladimir Putin, LGBTQ rights, and Russia’s annexation of Crimea. Serebrennikov is mostly known as a subversive theater director, but his controversial film The Student, which explored indoctrination, also won an award at Cannes in 2016.

Leto won’t be as controversial as The Student, but it explores some themes that are likely close to its director’s heart, themes that still resonate in Putin’s Russia: What does it mean to make protest art in a restrictive and controlling regime? And how can people carry on a life in the midst of it?

In Leto, rock of all kinds is an escape for young people in Soviet Leningrad

Roman Bilyk and Teo Yoo in Leto
Roman Bilyk and Teo Yoo in Leto.
HYPE Film Production

Set in the time just before Perestroika, Leto — which means “Summer” — is a fond tribute to the underground scene in Leningrad, and to the young people in it, who were immersed in music coming from the West but stuck living in the strictures of Soviet Russia.

The film focuses on a main trio of characters: rocker Mike (Roman Bilyk), his wife Natasha (Irina Starshenbaum), and newcomer Viktor (Teo Yoo). (The film is fictionalized, but Mike is based on Mike Naumenko of the band Zoopark, and Viktor on Viktor Tsoi of Kino.) They’re part of a horde of young people who play music and party together, go to the same rock club and strum guitars on the beach and pass around books of hand-transcribed lyrics by Bob Dylan and Blondie and Lou Reed.

The group is omnivorous in their taste — the Beatles and Velvet Underground and Bowie and T. Rex — and the bands they love might even seem a bit pedestrian until you recall that it wasn’t all that easy to get your hands on Western music in early 1980s Soviet Russia. Despite the wide variety of these influences, they like to think of themselves as “punk,” and the film tries to evoke their desire to be as revolutionary as their Western peers while living under strictures that those peers couldn’t really imagine.

Because in the early 1980s, Leningrad is the kind of place where young people will be verbally accosted and thrown off a train for singing “the songs of our ideological enemy,” America. The Leningrad Rock Club exists “to show that rock music isn’t for the gutters and the dives.”

Young people can sit and listen to the band play, but they can’t hold up signs or bob their heads too emphatically or mosh. Leto doesn’t require its audience to know much of the political context; the first scene in the rock club sets up the restrictions and the generational divide for viewers.

Teo Yoo, Filipp Avdeev, and Roman Bilyk in Leto
Teo Yoo, Filipp Avdeev, and Roman Bilyk in Leto.
Alexey Fokin/HYPE Film Production

But while all the rules imposed on the club necessarily mean the music is more subdued than what you might have been hearing elsewhere at the same time, it doesn’t reduce the passion the musicians feel for that music. (That said, it’s strange to see a film about rock and young people in which the most intoxicating substance imbibed is alcohol, and in which there is some exuberant skinny-dipping nudity at a beachside bonfire but no sex.)

Mike is the group’s ringleader when we meet him, and all of his passion is for music. He sits up late copying out lyrics and album covers. He mentors Viktor (who may be much more talented) and lives with Natasha and their young son Genia.

But the film doesn’t center on him. It’s more of a mood piece, drifting through the group’s experiences. Occasionally, it veers into fantasy, with hand-drawn illustrations on top of the film stock when the narrative slides toward musical numbers, often comical covers of songs like the Talking Heads’ “Psycho Killer” and Iggy Pop’s “The Passenger” staged on public transit. In one sequence, Mike’s band plays sedately at the rock club, then suddenly starts rocking out, and the crowd follows suit — but of course it’s a fantasy.

Brief moments like these feel a tad reminiscent of John Carney’s Sing Street, but with a much sadder, more political edge to them. And in most of these instances, a character called only “Skeptic” (Alexander Kuznetsov) appears near the end to remind us that “sadly, this did not happen.” There were moments that the group dreamed of, and felt almost within their reach, but reality was much harsher.

Leto loses steam by the end but is still universally relatable

Oddly, or, more likely, by necessity, their lyrics don’t seem all that revolutionary. Mike’s band sings an early song about how everyone is garbage, but most of the songs take on a tone of yearning for lost youth and a great love. The authorities say that Soviet musicians have a “responsibility” to advance ideologically sound ideas, so the musicians find ways to claim their songs are statements about morality and clean living. But everyone knows the truth.

Thinking about the implications of this is fascinating — at times, more fascinating than the movie itself. Once you know the film’s backstory — Serebrennikov’s house arrest happened just days before the end of shooting, and he conducted post-production without leaving his home — then Leto functions as a meta-commentary on today’s artists in the same regime. One wonders if the film’s affection for its characters is mixed with a tinge of judgment: Why didn’t they do more? Why are the scenes of real rabble-rousing just fantasy?

The answer may simply be that they were young, born and raised in the Soviet Union, and in many ways getting their first taste of something different through the English-language protest music spinning in various styles on their record players. They did what needed to be done so they could play.

Leto evokes pre-Perestroika Leningrad.
Leto evokes pre-Perestroika Leningrad.
HYPE Film Production

Yet the lack of a huge confrontation is a narrative flaw for Leto; its first hour is charged with energy, but as time goes on, it begins to flag, and elements that felt playful drop away for a more straightforward drama. Perhaps that’s just in keeping with harsh reality setting in for the characters with age and disappointment. But the movie overstays its welcome and loses its drive, in a way that winds up hindering it in the end.

Leto ends by hinting at how soon our main characters would pass away, in the months just before the Soviet Union dissolved. So while the movie finds its setting in a particular moment in Leningrad, it also feels very universal — a movie about being young and disaffected and passionate and in love, and watching all that change as you grow older. Summer, after all, never lasts forever.

Leto opened in competition at the Cannes Film Festival in May and is currently seeking US distribution.

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