In the final moments of Leto, Viktor Tsoi — leader of Kino, the rock band that gained a mass following on the eve of the Soviet Union’s collapse — makes his apotheosis in black clothes and eyeliner, defiant chin up. For most of the film, however, he is a shy teenager in a sweater. Kirill Serebrennikov’s highly anticipated biopic first made headlines last August, when the last days of shooting were interrupted by his arrest on embezzlement charges his supporters say are politically motivated. Serebrennikov remains under house arrest, and was unable to attend the film’s premiere at Cannes. Unsurprisingly, foreign critics were quick to frame Leto as an allegory for artistic oppression in Putin’s Russia. But the final result, released earlier this month in Russia, is surprisingly anodyne.

Until his arrest, Serebrennikov was best known for the Gogol Center, a theatre staging provocative riffs on Russian classics, and films like The Student (2016). His jailing has made him an unlikely martyr. In December 2017, Moscow’s glitterati (including Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov) turned out for the premiere of his ballet Nureyev at the Bolshoi, while Serebrennikov remained confined to his apartment.

While Serebrennikov’s case has become a cause célèbre, his film about the beloved Kino (which he edited from home) has been the subject of much speculation. Earlier this year, Leto was snubbed by Russian rock legend Boris Grebenshchikov, who helped Kino record their early albums. He denounced the screenplay as “a lie from beginning to end” starring “Moscow hipsters who do nothing other than [have sex] on someone else’s dime.” And the film caused some confusion at Cannes for foreign critics unfamiliar with Kino. Peter Bradshaw penned a positive review for the Guardian, despite apparently thinking that the film depicted Serebrennikov’s own youth.

Tsoi was born in Leningrad in 1962, the son of a teacher and an engineer of Korean descent. After coming up in Leningrad’s underground rock scene, he achieved superstar status with his electrifying appearance in the 1987 movie Assa. In the final scene, as a bureaucrat lectures them about rules for performers, Tsoi and bandmate Yuri Kasparyan stride towards a stage which transforms into a stadium full of screaming fans. The song they played, Khochu peremen (I Want Change), became the anthem of perestroika. At a time when Mikhail Gorbachev’s reforms were exploding the norms of Soviet politics and culture, Tsoi captured Soviet youth’s desire to break away from the world of their parents. A journalist once asked him what, if anything, he disliked about his surroundings. “Everything,” he said.

Foreign critics have seen Leto as “a stern rebuke to Putin’s Russia”. Reviewers at home have embraced its lightness and playfulness

In August 1990, Tsoi died in a car accident at the age of 28, prompting mass grief. The boiler room-turned-club where he worked, nicknamed Kamchatka, remains a place of pilgrimage. In Alexei Uchitel’s 1991 documentary The Last Hero, footage of Tsoi shovelling coal alternates with shots of mourning teenagers, some of whom took up residence in the cemetery where he was buried.  

Leto begins in the summer of 1981, when Tsoi was still making wood carvings and trying to get a gig at Leningrad’s rock clubs. Shot mostly in black and white, it centres around the love triangle of Tsoi (played by Korean-German actor Teo Yoo), Zoopark rocker Mike Naumenko, and the latter’s wife Natalia (the film is loosely based on her memoirs). The drama culminates in a chaste kiss and some banal dialogue: “sometimes holding hands is the scariest thing of all.” Meanwhile, the friends go skinny-dipping, listen to Lou Reed, and do battle with frowning functionaries. The latter raise their eyebrows at the group’s anti-Soviet attitudes, but ultimately allow them to perform — so long as they frame themselves right. Their song Vosmiklassnitsa (Eighth-grader) is given winking approval once it’s described as a cautionary tale of debauchery.

A Russian stamp released in 1999 showing Viktor Tsoi

In fantasy musical sequences that hover somewhere between charming and cringe-inducing, the characters sing Iggy Pop and Talking Heads to the accompaniment of cute graphics. Leto does feature a postmodern snarl in the guise of “the Skeptic”, who occasionally appears to poke holes in the proceedings (observing, for example, that while the young Soviets were navel-gazing, Bob Dylan was busy condemning racism). But overall, its Brezhnev-era Leningrad is a dreamy idyll. This nostalgic tone stands out in comparison to Dovlatov, Alexei German Jr.’s recent biopic of the cult writer. Set in Leningrad a decade earlier, Dovlatov features a suicidal poet and a black marketer who is killed while fleeing the police.

By focusing on the desultory days of the band's formation, the film elevates not Kino but late Soviet society itself

Foreign critics have seen Leto as “a stern rebuke to Putin’s Russia” that ponders “what it means to make protest art in a strict and controlling regime.” Reviewers at home, however, have embraced its lightness and playfulness. A critic for The Village, in a typical response, wrote that the film explores “how to preserve your inner child.” The film’s creators, including screenwriter Michael Idov, have struck a similar note. Roman Bilyk, who plays Naumenko, said Leto is “not political — it’s about friendship and love.”

Grebenshchikov was right when he said that the film was made by people from “a different planet.” Bilyk is better known as Roma Zver, the lead singer of Zveri (Beasts). The band’s 2004 hit Raiony kvartaly was a glossy, angsty anthem of the early Putin years. Zveri resonated among a generation that came of age in the turbulent 90s, with more choices but fewer illusions.

Viktor Tsoi photographed by Igor Moukhan in 1987. Image: histolines / Facebook

By focusing on the desultory days of the band’s formation, the film elevates not Kino but late Soviet society itself, a world where young people could roll their eyes at bureaucrats and seek salvation through Bowie and Blondie without having to worry much about time or money. Russians who grew up under “wild capitalism” don’t wish to return to the dictatorship of the proletariat, but they can appreciate its relative tranquility, which here is rendered total: no one is ever shown working.

In recent years, Khochu peremen has been adopted as a protest anthem by pro-EU protestors on Kiev’s Maidan and Donbass separatists alike. But for Russians in the 18th year of Putin’s rule, it is not the later, revolutionary incarnation of Tsoi that feels most appealing, but the boy in the sweater building bonfires. If Kino’s biggest hit looked to the future, Serebrennikov’s film — made after the future came and disappointed — yearns for a more innocent past.

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