A Peek Behind the Iron Curtain, by Matt Warren
The new Russian pop musical Hipsters is difficult to describe. Colorful and frenetic, it’s a bit like watching a feature-length Fanta (and/or Mentos) ad blown up to 125 extremely presumptuous minutes, full of Skittles-colored cinematography and a chintzy, Casio keyboard-inspired Eurotrash club music. Anyone who’s ever sat drinking Zima in a Ljubljanan strip club at one o’clock in the morning while listening to Alice DeeJay’s “Better Off Alone” will understand exactly what kind of aesthetic Hipsters is working with. And while I fondly cherish my memories of post-collegiate Slovenian debauchery, I still found the film to be a pretty brutal watch. But I can definitely see how it would appeal to a very specific subset of people literally half a world away. So there’s your quote for the DVD box.
Set in mid-1950s Moscow, Hipsters celebrates the rise of “Stilyagi” youth culture, a subset of Soviet teens who basically just like listening to American Jazz music and dressing like extras from a John Waters movie. That’s pretty much their whole deal. But in Soviet Russia, it’s more than enough. In open defiance of the rigid ideology of the Communist state, these so-called “Hipsters” make no secret their love for Western culture. And frequently, they suffer some not-so-good-natured abuse from roving packs of socialist youth groups.
Our protagonist is Mels (Anton Shagin), a dutiful young communist who falls in love with hipster Polly (Oksana Akinshina, looking very much like the Soviet Amber Heard), a textbook example of the manic pixie dream comrade. Soon, Mels falls in love with not just Polly, but all of Stilyagi culture. He changes his name to the Americanized “Mel,” buys a saxophone, and trades his drab Stalinist duds for some neon checkerboard leisurewear. Will these star-crossed lovers eventually connect? Only the Russian Cultural Ministry knows for sure.
Plus, it’s a musical. Good thing, too, because the musical numbers are by far the strongest element of the film. Filmed with all the pep and fizz of an Estonian chewing gum and/or condom commercial—just lively enough to prop up my flagging attention whenever they appeared. Spirited enough without being especially memorable, the songs and choreography hit a baseline level of competence without ever seeking to innovate or overwhelm. That the songs are in Russian provides further difficulties. One of the reasons people connect to show tunes is the immediacy of the lyrical sentiment, a trait that’s totally lost once the words are robotically translated into graceless text superimposed over histrionic Cyrillic caterwauling. But despite this, I can definitely see how director Valery Todorovsky’s film took home the Russian Oscar for Best Picture. It’s inoffensive nationalistic feel-good pap. But I will say that Hipsters’ U.S. distributors missed a huge opportunity by not re-titling the film CCCP Glee!
Another stumbling block is the fact that the film requires a certain amount of assumed knowledge about midcentury Soviet domestic life. This may be the only time in my life when my blithe American ignorance hasn’t worked out 100% in my favor. At no point did I fully understand just how transgressive the Stilyagi were supposed to be, exactly. There’s talk about characters being sent to prison for crimes as minor as facing a portrait of Stalin toward the bathroom, but nothing Mel & Co. do seems to be especially illegal, and they seem to have precious little worry about prancing down the streets of Moscow like a bunch of drag queens in their loud, Western-influenced duds. I’m sure that Russians watching the film will already understand the context, but for an outsider it was difficult to grasp what the dramatic stakes were. And it doesn’t help that Mel and Polly are drawn much too broadly—almost like characters in a film within a film, minus that crucial second layer.
Hipsters hints at a variety of interesting subjects: the rise of the teenager in the years following WWII, the role of individuality in a socialist society, how cultural appropriation can evolve into authentically new modes of self-expression, etc. Unfortunately, Hipsters backgrounds these elements in favor of another trite love story. But then again, the Russians probably stole that idea from the Americans, too.