Leto (2018) ☆☆☆(3/4): A biographical rock drama set in Leningrad during the 1980s

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Russian film “Leto” tries to give us a glimpse into the Russian rock music culture during the early 1980s, and I admire its attempt to some degree. Although my mind frequently went somewhere when I watched it early in this morning and it was not as informative on its real-life figures as I hoped, I appreciated its melancholic ambience and occasional spirited musical moments at least, and I think these good aspects are strong enough to compensate for its several weak aspects including its rather weak narrative and broad characterization.

The movie opens with a modest rock music concert held at some shabby building located somewhere in Leningrad. As the concert is about to be started, the camera smoothly follows a trio of enthusiastic young women sneaking into the building, and we soon get an amusing moment while Mike Naumenko (Roman Bilyk) and his band members perform their music. Their young audiences are all apparently excited, but no one is allowed to express their excitement freely because the concert is severely monitored by stern government officials. As shown from one brief moment, even a small gesture of showing enthusiasm is not permitted at all, and all these young audiences can do is shaking or tapping a bit while listening to music.

Despite the limits and prohibitions put upon them by the government, Naumenko and his colleagues keep sticking to their passion toward music although his music is not exactly fresh in fact. While Naumenko has been regarded as one of the crucial figures in Russian rock music, many of his songs were blatant imitations of Western rock songs, and that aspect is wryly pointed out by one of his colleagues at one point in the film.

Nevertheless, as a guy who has devoted himself to music, Naumenko knows what good music is, and he instantly recognizes considerable potential from Viktor Tsoi (Teo Yoo), a young Korean Russian musician who happens to be introduced to him by their mutual acquaintance. As listening more to Tsoi’s music, Naumenko comes to discern more of Tsoi’s talent, and he soon becomes a guiding figure to Tsoi while often giving him help and advice.

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This relationship between them becomes a little complicated when Naumenko’s ever-supportive wife Natalia (Irina Starshenbaum) finds herself attracted to Tsoi. As your average free spirit, she frankly tells her husband about her growing attraction to Tsoi, and Naumenko does not mind that at all as your typical liberal-minded rock musician, so she and Tsoi come to have a little private time together when Naumenko is absent for a while, but they do not get closer to each other probably because both of them do not want to hurt Naumenko’s feeling.

In the meantime, Naumenko, Tsoi, and their colleagues continue to struggle under their difficult reality. While they are stuck in their underground status as usual, any new song to be performed in public is checked for whether it can be too negative or subversive, and there is a small humorous scene where Naumenko seriously argues that Tsoi’s new songs are merely satiric.

After successfully doing his first public performance, Tsoi advances further with more songs, and Naumenko later helps him get a chance to record his first album. Although Tsoi is not so pleased with the poor condition of a recording studio they rent, Naumenko persuades him to make the best of that, and he also makes a number of good suggestions during the recording process.

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As leisurely moving from one episodic moment to another, the movie puts more emphasis on mood and music, though its attempt is not always successful. While the screenplay by director Kirill Serebrennikov and his co-adapters Mikhail Idov, Ivan Kapitonov, and Lily Idova, which is based on the memoirs written by Natalia Naumenko, occasionally suffers from its rather flat storytelling, its main characters remain more or less than conventional archetypes, and we come to observe them from the distance without getting any substantial insight or knowledge except their shared passion toward rock music.

While I constantly noticed this flawed aspect of the movie, I was entertained by its music and atmosphere nonetheless. Beautifully shot in black and white film by cinematographer Vladislav Opelyants, the movie provides a number of fine moments full of mood and details, and it also gives us several lively musical sequences which utilize well several famous Western pop songs from the 1980s. For example, I could not help but amused during a musical sequence where Iggy Pop’s “The Passenger” is sung by not only Natalia and Tsoi but also a group of citizens who happen to be near them, and I was also delighted to hear Lou Reed’s “Perfect Day”, which has always been associated in my mind with a certain memorable moment in “Trainspotting” (1996).

On the whole, “Leto”, which deservedly received the Soundtrack Award at the Cannes Film Festival early in last year, was a fairly interesting experience, though I still think its finale could be more impactful if it let us get to know more of its three main characters. To be frank with you, I remained not so enlightened on its subject after the movie was over and I had to check Wikipedia for getting more background information before writing this review, but the movie mostly works in terms of mood and music, so I recommend it with some reservation. Yes, it could be better, but it has more charm and personality than “Bohemian Rhapsody” (2018) at least.

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