In Moscow there’s a wall, considered one of the city’s landmarks, that’s covered with drawings and tags, all tributes to Russian rock star Viktor Tsoy and his band Kino. Tsoy (here played by one Teo Yoo, a German actor who so closely resembles the real-life Tsoy it’s uncanny), created Kino together with Mike Naumenko, another figure of Moscow’s rock underground. They gave concerts in a rock club, working with government censors who kept a tight leash on lyrics and behavior and making-do with USSR’s autocratic regime.
With “Leto” (“Summer” in Russian) Kirill Serebrennikov retraces the heady days of the band, one summer in the eighties. from the relationship between Naumenko, his girlfriend and future mother of his child, Tsoy, other band members, groupies, government censors and the rock club’s vigilant owners. Rock wasn’t very popular in the USSR, and bands received no funding or exposure. The Leningrad Rock Club, in Moscow, was the only venue where bands were authorized to perform, with caveats. Lyrics couldn’t be overtly subversive, no sexual inuendos, yadi yadi yada. Meetings were organized for the band members to sit with government censors and club owners, so that they could hammer out various modifications.
There’s a lot of great rock’n’roll in “Leto,” on stage, by the bonfire on the beach, at home, in the rehearsal space, and, all the time rock’s luminaries are watching. Bowie, Reed, his Velvet Underground, Iggy Pop, and T-Rex, are adulated. Tsoy, Naumenko and the others are fully aware of their forefathers, collecting their albums and emulating them. Serebrennikov leavens the film with euphoric musical sequences.
Serebrennikov, who was last seen at the Cannes Festival two years ago with his film “The Student,” a feral beast of a movie where themes of religion, youth, adulthood, the establishment versus the fringe, all collided repetitively with each other at breakneck speed, is notably absent from the Croisette this year. A theater man and a filmmaker, he has been under house arrest in Moscow after stepping on the wrong toes. In a typically-Russian tale of crossing and double-crossing involving the private citizenry and government, Serebrennikov apparently angered some other figure of the arts who happened to have strong connections with the Kremlin, thus resulting in some bogus sentence being handed over to him, confining him to his home. Shame he couldn’t make it to France. Serebrennikov’s ode to rock’n’roll, half-biopic, half-historical retelling, vibrates with great music and heartfelt performances, an apt retelling of one of Russia’s most glorious cultural eras.