Film Review: Hipsters

Retro Russian musical has its moments.
Reviews

As the remake of Footloose fades from theatres, fans of musicals could do worse than see Hipsters, a Russian-made production that mixes classical and modern elements. What the film lacks in originality or wit, it compensates for with solid craftsmanship, a pleasing look and sound, and a great ending.

Adapted by screenwriter Yuri Korotkov from his book Boogie Bones, Hipsters is set in 1955 Moscow, when Communism still had a firm grip on every way of life. Against this oppressive backdrop, a young student, Mels (Anton Shagin), yearns to break away from his Komsomol shock-troop job patrolling the streets and nightclubs, trying to control or stop various forms of Western-influenced dancing (like jazz and boogie-woogie). His group leader, Katya (Evgenia Brik), even demands the colorful, revealing clothing the rebellious youngsters wear be cut and destroyed.

Mels eventually meets and falls for one of the underground hipster dancers, Polly (Oksana Akinshina), creating a major rift with Katya and his other friends. Soon, Mels leaves school and becomes a well-liked hipster in the clubs, but when Polly becomes pregnant, Mels’ life changes yet again. His responsibility as a new father is tested when he is faced with some startling news.

The tension between the repressive establishment and free-spirited youths is one of the oldest of musical-comedy motifs—even Footloose is about this. The Romeo and Juliet storyline has also become routine ever since it was applied to West Side Story. What sets Hipsters apart, at least somewhat, is the intelligent way it updates and refashions its “old-school” musical sequences into the narrative. In this regard, the film is more entertaining than, say, Dancer in the Dark, Moulin Rouge or any number of modern musical homages to Hollywood’s heyday. At least director (and co-writer of the “libretto”) Valery Todorovsky allows the singing and dancing to coherently survive the MTV-style editing while still giving the “spontaneous” musical outbursts a satiric edge—right up through the rousing, deliberately anachronistic finale.

If Todorovsky’s approach imitates anything, really, it is the actual Communist musicals of the 1950s (well documented in 1997’s East Side Story) and maybe a few of the over-the-top, brightly designed nostalgia pieces of more recent times—e.g., Absolute Beginners and Hairspray—though the director knows his subject of Soviet life demands the occasional dark or tender moment (the last couple of reels are particularly heavy). Roman Vasyanov’s sophisticated widescreen cinematography keeps up with the shifts in tone, even nodding toward Soviet Realism, and may be the best aspect of the production. The performances are engaging, though no one stands out as a star and much of Konstantin Meladze’s original score is surprisingly forgettable.

In any case, Hipsters is fun to watch and a laudable example of a revisionist genre piece.