‘Leto’ Shows the Passionate and Unconventional Sound of Soviet Music

One wouldn’t imagine a rock and roll concert without the pit buzzing to the beat, a compact and euphoric crowd singing along and yet, Leto, from director Kirill Serebrennikov, opens with a contradiction. In a hot and cold atmosphere, a group plays energetic music in front of a frozen audience, confined in a room by guards. This first sequence alone sums up the dilemma within Leto, that roughly translates as ‘Summer’ in Russian, a film about a generation’s burning soul trapped in an icy era.

More than a dramatised and typical biopic, Leto loosely introduces us to a pioneer of Russian rock music in the enigmatic yet ardent Viktor Tsoi (played by the charismatic Teo Yoo), front-man of Kino. It is through the eyes of the ones that inspired him and knew him best that we are told about his ascension to fame. These mentors include Mike Naumenko (Roman Bilyk), leader of the group Zoopark, who helped him develop then expand his creativity when Natasha (played brilliantly by Irina Starshenbaum), Naumenko’s bewitching wife, contributed to Tsoi’s awakening of the senses. Subsequently, a rebellious Soviet Union serves as a political background to the love triangle forming.

As one would demonstrate in the streets, Western rock and roll music in Leto is used as a tool of defiance, although slightly toned down by the communist ambience. And if transcribing the brightness that summer holds within a black and white frame is a challenge, Leto doesn’t fail to bloom and vibrate thanks to its rhythmic parentheses. The lack of true and classic narrative, that could easily surprise or unsettle, is largely balanced by a wide variety of songs. We gladly listen to the film more than we look at it as it strongly stimulates the ear, just like a visual album would. Images then serves as a faithful companion that livens up our sensory experience. 

There is definitely more to the film than a couple of decibels and tormented rockstars. Leto delivers a ‘coming-of-age’ subtext that requires to scratch below the surface, underneath the illusion of a long summer haze. It is the story of a youth desperate to leave a mark on its time, fully aware of the passing of time and history. As Viktor Tsoi grows into the musician he is meant to become, the film broaches the topics of fate and legacy. Less angry that it is melancholic, Leto takes an interest in what it is to be looking up to our idols (Lou Reed, David Bowie or even Iggy Pop) whilst secretly wondering if we’ll ever reach their level of greatness.

Serebrennikov respectfully keeps his characters at arm’s length, refusing to dissect every single one of their move and choices, but just leaves them be to build their legend on their own. He dives into a memory turned reverie instead, with dazzling psychedelic moments, such as an argument with an old man on a train transforming into a karaoke sequence on ‘Psycho Killer’. Reality and dream get beautifully mixed up. 

Leto is that compelling song on a homogeneous set-list that lasts over seven minutes, with catchy lyrics and a heady melody that quickly creeps into your skull and won’t leave your mind for a long long time.

 

by Marie-Célia Cannenpasse

Marie-Célia is from a French Caribbean island, and currently studies applied foreign languages at Sorbonne University in Paris, whilst taking filmmaking courses online. Her favourite films include Gone with the windSuper 8Call Me By Your Name and The Prestige. You can find her on Twitter and Letterboxd @MCeliaCR

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