In competition in Cannes this year is Russian director and festival darling (Betrayal was in competition in Venice in 2012) Kirill Serebrennikov. Though the film is in black-and-white, it is full of vibrant colour.
The film opens with a group of girls entering a gig backstage, up ladders and fire escapes via the men’s loos. We could be almost anywhere, at any time, the black-and-white taking us back to the 1960s. So far, so global. But once inside the venue, we are soon made aware of the differences between audiences on either side of the Iron Curtain: everyone is seated, toes are surreptitiously tapped, and standing up or waving posters are strictly policed and forbidden. Welcome to Leningrad circa 1981.
The band on stage is led by the charismatic Mike (Roman Bilyk). He loves Marc Bolan, Bob Dylan, Lou Reed and of course David Bowie. New music is seeping into the state and the New Romantics are on the horizon. Mike might look like your archetypal rock star, all sunglasses and smouldering cigarettes, but in reality he’s a happily married man. His partner is the beautiful Natasha (Irina Starshenbaum) and they have a son together. Their love story is at the heart of the film, but so is the camaraderie of friends and fellow musicians. It doesn’t matter much if you grew up in a totalitarian state or a western one: anyone who has been in a band or been part of a music scene will recognise this gorgeous group of friends.
Serebrennikov chose black-and-white, but splashes of colour are interspersed throughout, thanks to Super8 footage of the gang, which we see being filmed, and the use of animation superimposed on the live-action scenes. The Super8 manages to evoke a sense of the past and nostalgia even more than the monochrome, and is sparsely but effectively used. Another effect is the introduction of a Brechtian character who talks directly to the audience: he offers alternative scenes and outcomes to the ones we are shown, saying, “Of course, this didn’t really happen”, before we move on with the story. Though some may find this grating, it offers a glimpse of lives lived in the imagination as a way of opposing the oppressive regime.
There are other magical realist touches, such as people bursting into song. We have passengers on a bus singing Iggy Pop, while a broken-hearted women sings Lou Reed’s Perfect Day. And far from being austere or sombre, it is brimming with light and life, even as Mike risks losing the love of his life to the new musical upstart Victor (TeoYoo).
The film is a song to love and to youthfulness. It deals with heavy issues with a lightness of touch and offers a glimpse into a recent past that is all but forgotten. It shows these Russians’ inventiveness and ingenuity in their struggle to make music while remaining authentic. For this particular reviewer, the songs and the bands were those of my own youth (there is even a hilarious reference to Duran Duran), and there were familiar scenes of sharing music, making tapes and obsessing over record covers,but its story will resonate whatever your age or musical persuasion.