Under Review: ‘Hipsters’ (aka ‘Stilyagi’)


For a swingin’ time take a trip into Moscow, 1955. Little did we know there was an underground movement in love with the music, food, fashion and finger snappin’ of American pop culture. Emulating idealized American free expression and individualism, this small Russian mutiny was an underground secret right under the noses of the Communist Politburo.

“Hipsters” — the first Russian musical in more than 50 years — was produced and directed by Valery Todorovsky. The film investigates a colorful antithesis, the hipsters, to the collective conformism of the Communist Youth League (CYL) and Khrushchev’s post-Stalinist Soviet Union. Its protagonist, Mels, was named for Marx, Engles, Lenin and Stalin. In a Marxist reversal, Mels, a CYL member, rebels and joins the hipsters, eventually playing a sax with the soul of his idol, Charlie Parker.

The film begins in a quiet waiting room of a hospital where a heavy smoker is diagnosed with pneumonia. Soon a song is sung about the need to cure a society, to make it feel “not so sad and lonely.”

Metaphorically some of the members of the hospital staff are hipsters by night, wearing colorful clothes, dancing to rip-rousing jazz, enjoying sex, laughing and celebrating life. Colorful high heels, pony tails, pompadours, plaid suit jackets, clashing colors, red lipstick, laughter and music are all the ingredients of their new elixir.

The hipster excitement is juxtaposed to the stolid tuba-playing community bands in the Moscow parks. The girls with tightly braided hair and dignified carriage are dressed in gray with sensible walking shoes and no make-up.

Though 1955 was the year Charlie Parker died, no one in Moscow seems to know it. However, it is also the year that Mel (who drops the s) acknowledges a black baby as his own, possibly representing the continuing legacy of fighting oppression through freedom of expression.

Layered with symbolism, parallels, and Communist ideology, “Hipsters” is a surprising look at Soviet cultural history and a reminder of the dehumanizing conformity required by the former Soviet communists.

In an interview the director points out that he met all of the real hipsters. “They are not that old. There are not that many of them. I spoke to them before I made the movie and they told me a lot of things. For example, the scene with the bulldog painted in different colors was a true story. It wasn’t just for fun. The hipster was painting it so that by going out in public he could show everyone that even his dog was colorful while they were grey.”

“Hipsters” takes a deceivingly light touch to the harassment and persecution the hipsters experienced. At one point a song lyric breaks:

    In a country where sneezing too loud can get you arrested…
    He was just dancing!
    Kowtowing to Western Ideology is a crime punishable by up to one year.
    Please take a good look in the mirror.
    Even your hairstyle is a violation under that statue.
    This constant self-repression can only lead to a complete destruction of one’s identity.

These are pretty heavy lyrics for a song and dance romance that brings some toe-tapping and a smile. It’s also wonderfully startling that this delightful yet historically critical musical won the Nika (the Russian Oscar) for Best Film.

HIPSTERS (Stilyagi)

HIPSTERS, a film by Valery Todorovsky, won four Nikas (Russian Oscar)
for best film, production design, costumes and sound.
HIPSTERS has played at numerous North American film festivals including
Toronto, Seattle, Chicago and Washington D.C.
HIPSTERS will open at Cinema Village in NYC on February 24, 2012.
March 2 & 4, 2012 Fort Worth Museum, Fort Worth, TX
March 16, 2012 Grand Cinema, Tacoma, WA
March 30, 2012 Landmark Theatres, Minneapolis, MN
April 6, 2012 E Street/ Washington, D.C.
April 13, 2012 Kendall Square/Boston, MA

Film Credits

Director: Valery Todorovsky
Screenplay: Yuri Korotkov (based on his book “Boogie Bones”)
Libretto: Valery Todorovsky and Evgeny Margulis
Producers: Leonid Lebedev, Leonid Yarmolnik, Vadim Goryainov and Valery Todorovsky
Cast: Anton Shagin, Oksana Akinshina, Evgenia Brik, Maksim Matveev, Igor Voynarovsky and Ekaterina Vilkova
Country: Russia
Language: Russian with English subtitles
Runtime: 125 minutes
Release Date: 2008 (Russia)
Also Known As: Буги на костях

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