When Kirill Serebrennikov’s Leto first premiered last year at Cannes, it was overshadowed by the director’s recent house arrest under accusations of embezzlement against the state. The film world reacted with outraged scorn, seeing his imprisonment as blatant retaliation by the Russian government against an artist known for outspoken opinions on gay rights, the annexation of Crimea, and—perhaps most damningly—Vladimir Putin himself. Indeed, his previous film The Student (2016) about a teenager who starts a cultish movement in his high school can be read as a Putin-era allegory against authoritarianism. And now, months before the debut of Leto, a film charting the rise of the Soviet underground rock scene in pre-perestroika Leningrad, Serebrennikov suddenly gets accused of federal crimes and locked up. Convenient.
But Serebrennikov persisted, getting assistants to shoot incomplete scenes based on his notes and rehearsals while wrapping up post-production work on a computer not connected to the internet. The film was well received at Cannes, competing for the Palme d’Or—it would lose to another highly politicized film about outsiders, Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Shoplifters. Now almost a year later, Leto has finally made it over to the United States, home of the very rock music its characters idolized, only to discover that the cinematic landscape changed. Inured by several years under our own increasingly authoritarian president, American audiences seem exhausted by rabble-rousing agitprop in favor of escapism and reassuring, all-is-well pablum; how else to explain the Academy Award-winning success of Peter Farrelly’s Green Book the same year that Spike Lee got his groove back? In particular, rock music biopics have come into vogue, particularly Bryan Singer’s car crash Bohemian Rhapsody (2018) and Dexter Fletcher’s upcoming Rocketman. Even Danny Boyle, one of Europe’s great kineticists, looked at the crumbling state of Western democracy and civil rights and dared to ask the question of what if everybody forgot about The Beatles?
Unexpectedly, this might be the best environment for Leto, as it largely eschews overt politics in favor of moody nostalgia, playing more as a melancholy scrapbook of youth and longing. The film follows the friendship between two seminal figures of Soviet rock, Mike Naumenko (Roman Bilyk) of Zoopark and Viktor Tsoi (Teo Yoo) of Kino. The two meet and quickly bond over their mutual love of Western rock, of David Bowie and Bob Dylan, of Blondie and the Beatles, sharing bootleg recordings and handwritten transcriptions of Lou Reed lyrics. Much like Mia Hansen-Løve’s ode to the early 90s Paris electronica scene Eden (2014), the film rejects the traditional forward momentum of Western biopics, instead watching as the characters drift in and out of each other’s lives, collaborating on a song here, an album there, occasionally performing together at a beach party or the nascent Leningrad Rock Club, the first venue in Leningrad where performing rock music was legal. (One of the few blatantly political moments of the film is a brilliant absurdist sequence near the beginning where an audience of teenagers at a concert are monitored by KGB operatives who prevent them from singing along, dancing, or holding signs.) There are few creative disputes between the two, even as their careers start going in different directions; the only true point of contention between them comes when Tsoi begins an affair with Mike’s wife Natalia (Irina Starshenbaum). But even then, Serebrennikov views their love triangle with a sense of detachment, sidestepping the traditional jealous melodrama most Western audiences would probably expect.
The high points of Leto are a series of fantasy musical sequences where Mike and Viktor let their imaginations run wild and start singing American rock songs in public. A train trip where an uptight factory worker sics the KGB on them for dressing like Westerners descends into a chaotic riot where they race up and down the train-cars screaming Talking Head’s “Psycho Killer” as animated lyrics dance on the screen. A bus ride through the city transforms into a public chorale as random passengers start singing Iggy Pop’s “The Passenger” in perfect English. Later Natalia sprouts a rotoscoped red dress—with the exception of a few inserts, the film is shot in black-and-white—while walking home with Viktor as they croon Lou Reed’s “Perfect Day.” The sequences best capture the sense of creative euphoria Mike, Viktor, and their fellow rockers must have felt playing such aggressive, restricted music in a country where people who didn’t properly toe the Party line could still mysteriously vanish. Tellingly, these scenes are always capped off by a fourth-wall-breaking character known simply as The Skeptic (Aleksandr Kuznetsov) who addresses the audience and assures them that “sadly, this did not happen.”
Alas, the film loses much of its steam in the last half. Paradoxically, as the USSR got closer and closer to perestroika and restrictions against Western music began to crumble, Mike and Viktor seem increasingly disillusioned and withdrawn. Perhaps this is a meta-textual flourish on Serebrennikov’s part, mimicking the sense of lose felt by Soviet rock fans by their unexpected early deaths right as they were poised to conquer the music world, Viktor in a 1990 car crash, Mike by a 1991 cerebral hemorrhage following an accident. However this doesn’t relieve a pervading sense of deflation as the film begins to dissipate towards the end. One can’t help but wonder if this is a product of Putin’s indirect censorship or a failing more intrinsic within Serebrennikov’s artistic vision. Better to give the man the benefit of the doubt, particularly since so much of the film sings with the very freedom denied to him.