A '50s Moscow with pop music
By Michael O'Sullivan
Friday, Apr. 6, 2012
Set in Moscow in the mid-1950s, the Russian musical "Hipsters" is a candy-colored confection with a dark, bittersweet center. Focusing on a group of pop-music-loving young people in pompadours and swing skirts, it's a cartoonish fantasia, pitting a small subculture of sex and rock-and-roll against the gray, monolithic conformity of Communism.
Guess who wins?
In filmmaker Valeriy Todorovskiy's telling, the self-described stilyagi, or hipsters, at the heart of the film may have flourished only briefly, but they sowed seeds that would bear fruit in the new, more open Russia of today. The film ends with the heroes of "Hipsters" - who look like extras from "Hairspray" - taking to the streets of Moscow, as hippies, punks and hoodie-wearing rap fans join them in an rousing closing song.
It's cheerful, if slightly silly stuff, a Slavic Coke commercial about the power of music.
There is, however, a more serious subtext to the film, which focuses on the love story between Mels (Anton Shagin) and Polina (Oksana Akinshina) - or "Mel" and "Polly" as they call themselves, in an evocation of the American culture they fetishize. At the start of the film, Mels is a card-carrying member of the Komsomol, or Communist Youth League, and Polina is an alpha female in the gang that frequents the underground jazz clubs of the street her pals have dubbed "Broadway."
Soon Mels is wearing pink shirts and green jackets, and wailing on a sax he picked up on the black market. (There are lots of cute bits about buying contraband neckties and cutting crude LP records on X-ray film. Who knows - or cares - whether any of this is historically accurate? It's fun.)
The serious stuff kicks in late in the film, after Mels and Polina have fallen in love - and into bed and its consequences. By that time, the leader of the hipsters, Fyodor, a.k.a. "Fred" (Maksim Matveev), has sold out to the man, cutting his Elvis 'do and taking a job as a diplomat in America to appease his politically connected father. When Mels and Polina set up house in a communal apartment building with Mels's father and younger brother, the lovebirds discover that growing up isn't necessarily like it is in pop songs.
Todorovskiy is telling us that with responsibility comes compromise and youth doesn't last forever. There's a poignant scene where a newly conservative, business-suited Fred returns from his U.S. post, telling Mels that - contrary to their dreams - there are no hipsters in America.
He probably isn't lying. A more likely explanation is that they're now invisible to him - he just can't see them anymore.
"Hipsters" doesn't belabor that point. It's far more interested in style than story. But if it has a message, it's this: You're only young once, so you might as well act like it while you still can.
Contains nudity and sexuality. In Russian with subtitles.