Elena Nikolaeva: Pops (Popsa), 2005
reviewed by Natal'ia Rulyova © 2006
Pops is Elena Nikolaeva’s most recent feature film, following SexStory (SekSkazka, 1991), a perestroika film based on Vladimir Nabokov’s “Story” (“Skazka”), and The Aborigine (Aborigen, 1988), not to mention her documentary films. In her interview with Kinotime, Nikolaeva explains that Iurii Korotkov, the talented scriptwriter who had written the script for her first film, wrote the screenplay for Pops for a different director and a different production company six years before Nikolaeva’s film came out. The leading role had been scripted for the Russian pop-star Alla Pugacheva as the protagonist Larissa Ivanovna, but the pop-star declined the offer and the director never made the film. Nikolaeva liked the script and decided to make a film about the price people pay for success in the tough world of show business. 
According to the website Kul'tura pis'mennoi rechi, the word “pops, popsa” has four distinct meanings: 1) something that is excellent; 2) pop-music of low quality; 3) artefacts of low artistic quality with attributes of mass culture; 4) people of low intelligence and artistic taste. In Nikolaeva’s film, the title plays with the last three meanings of the word. The film is about the people involved in the post-Soviet world of pop-music. It can also be described as a post-Soviet interpretation of the Cinderella tale. A naïve, attractive, and feisty 18 year-old provincial girl, Mstislava, or Slava, (Elena Velikanova, a granddaughter of the famous Gelena Velikanova) writes songs, plays the guitar, and dreams of becoming a pop-star. She arrives in Moscow from the far eastern city of Verkhneveliuisk. After a week-long train journey, she changes her ripped jeans for a dress in a station toilet and soon appears on the doorstep of the glamorous apartment of a powerful, middle-aged show business producer, Larissa Ivanovna (Tat'iana Vasil'eva), who had noticed Slava during her trip through the provinces a year earlier and had given her a business card.
The film’s chronotope is clearly defined: the narrative begins on a summer day early in the morning at a Moscow train station and ends the following morning with Slava making her way to the station to return to her home town. Slava spends the day following Larissa around the city and learns about the dark inner-side of the glitzy show business world, of which she so much wants to become part. As in a fairy-tale plot, the young girl encounters various characters—some are old lecherous men, others are women jealous of Slava’s youth and looks. She meets the aging singer Leva (Valerii Garkalin), who begs Larissa to invest more money in promoting his career even though his records no longer sell. The old poet (Vsevolod Shilovskii) speaks in rhymed couplets and tries to charm Slava into meeting him while his wife and children are away. The capricious singer Ira (the famous Russian pop-star Lolita Miliavskaia) refuses to continue shooting her new clip as soon as she recognises a potential threat in Slava. Even the former pop-star (Ol'ga Drozdova), who went mad because she had lost her voice and is in a psychiatric hospital, tries to poison Slava against Larissa. Another young male singer attempts to lure Slava into having sex with him.
Slava, however, manages to get out of all these situations unharmed. Her weapons against all these evil-wishing show-biz celebrities are her provincial naïveté and bluntness: she tells Leva that people no longer buy his records even in her home town; she mortally offends the poet by asking him whether he has ever tried to write real poetry; in self-defence she tells Ira that she should look at her own legs before criticising hers… As expected in a fairy-tale, Slava meets her prince. She sees the pop-singer Vlad in a studio where he is recording a new song. He fails to sing the tune right, but Slava is nevertheless charmed. As a reward for being a quick-learner, the “fairy godmother” Larissa arranges for Slava to enjoy a short moment of fame on-stage with Vlad, after which she is whisked away by the man of her dreams…
Pops plays on an old theme, which Anton Chekhov originally described in his play Three Sisters: “To Moscow, to Moscow!” Since then, there have been many interpretations of this refrain. One of the most remarkable cinematic takes on the theme is the famous Oscar-winning Soviet film Moscow Does Not Believe in Tears (Moskva slezam ne verit; dir. Vladimir Men'shov, 1979), in which three provincial girls come to Moscow in search of fame and success. Like this Soviet classic, Pops is one part melodrama and one part comedy. Its genre ambivalence is, however, mostly confusing. The exaggerated and camp characters of the Moscow pop-music underworld turn out to be sad and broken individuals whose success and life depend on the mood and plans of Larissa, who manipulates them like puppets.
Pops attempts to revise the post-Soviet myth of femininity. Unlike many post-Soviet films and dramas, the protagonist who rules the Moscow pop-business world is a woman, although many of her characteristics are conventionally ascribed to men: Larissa is powerful, quick-witted, and aggressive. These qualities make her a top producer but, at the same time, they destroy her love life: a younger man leaves her for a younger blonde. The tough and uncompromising Larissa suffers from a lack of femininity: she is unhappy and lonely, which is in conflict with the comic aspirations of the film, creating a melodramatic tension. Pops is an unusual film that has been made by a team of mostly women (apart from the scriptwriter and a few actors); indeed, Barri Alibasov, one of the pop-stars who appear in the film, was surprised by the determining role that women played in the production.
And yet, the film’s interpretation of the center-periphery trope does not contradict recent mainstream films and television dramas. Metropolitan Moscow is portrayed as a place full of depraved characters and lost souls who spend their lives in search of fame, drugs, and entertainment. The provinces, by comparison, are represented as a source of real people and folk wisdom (Slava repeatedly quotes her older brother to Larissa when the producer loses her patience or is on the verge of tears). Larissa understands that Moscow show-biz producers need to take a step towards the provinces, but many others are still incapable of seeing beyond the Moscow ring road. Larissa’s hopes with Slava are based on the idea of sponsoring a “real project for the regions” (real'nyi proekt dlia regionov). In Slava, she recognises a tough, cool, lively, angry, and real person―something that Moscow lacks.
Pops touches on various problems characteristic of post-Soviet society in general―not only of the Moscow pop-music elite―including homophobia, racism, hooliganism, alcohol and drug problems. At times, this injection of reality overpowers the comedy of its affects. As a result, Pops has received a range of responses, from the admiring review by Tat'iana Kuchrova  to those who found it to be a fake, a piece of popsa itself.  This last review criticised the film for turning into what it meant to oppose, that is, a glitzy show-biz advertising project. Nikolaeva’s post-Soviet version of the Cinderella story does not intend to glamorise the Moscow show business world, but it is up to the viewer to decide how successful this attempt is.
Natal'ia Rulyova (University of Surrey, UK)
1] Aleksei Khanykov. Interview. “Elena Nikolaeva: U nas ne bylo zadachi pokazat' zakulisnuiu zhizn'.” Kinotime: Informatsionnyi kinoresurs. 4 August 2005.
2] Tat'iana Kuchrova. Review of Pops. World Art: Art in All Displays
3] Aleksandr Ivanov. “Sploshnaia popsnia.” Volgograd v seti: Kul'tura, Kino. 30 August.2005.
Pops, Russia, 2005
Color, 109 minutes
Director: Elena Nikolaeva
Screenplay: Iurii Korotkov
Cinematography: Andrei Zhegalov
Composer: Iurii Poteenko
Cast: Elena Velikanova, Tat'iana Vasil'eva, Valerii Garkalin, Vsevolod Shilovskii, Lolita Miliavskaia, Ol'ga Drozdova, Oleg Nepomniashchii, Ivan Ridakov, Dmitrii Pevtsov
Producer: Mikhail Babakhanov
Production: Saturn Film Company
Elena Nikolaeva: Pops (Popsa), 2005
reviewed by Natal'ia Rulyova © 2006