Issue 28 (2010)
Vladimir Vinogradov: Sweet May (Laskovyi Mai, 2009)
reviewed by Mariya Y. Boston © 2010
According to statistics, every third Russian has been to a concert of Laskovyi Mai—a boy band formed by orphans between 1988-92—at least once (Ukolova). Vladimir Vinogradov's film Sweet May/Laskovyi Mai narrates the story of the band’s immense popularity and its founder, Andrei Razin (played by Viacheslav Manchurov). Even this reviewer remembers her feeling of awe when she actually got to meet Iura Shatunov, the lead vocalist of Laskovyi Mai. I can’t say I really liked Laskovyi Mai back then, but somehow general admiration rubbed off on me, an 8-year old girl, as well. Vinogradov’s film accurately expresses that universal fascination with this band, whose 14 year-old lead-singer with a nasal and somewhat winy voice sung about white roses on a cold winter night. The film is in no way a documentary, and certainly provides no accurate account of the group’s biography. The film does, however, quite successfully describe the incredible success of this orphan-boy-band (all the boys were from an orphanage), the hysteria that the band brought up and the spirit of the perestroika and glasnost epoch.
Razin, who is presented as an Ostap-Bender-like character of the late 1980s, is in the center of the film. A maid, who works for Mikhail Gorbachev’s mother, visits an orphanage in a small provincial town and then adopts young Razin, after he “performs” on a bus’ roof to prevent her from leaving. This event marks the beginning of his singing career. For the rest of the film, Andrei does everything possible and impossible (including lying about him being Gorbachev’s nephew and stealing his kolkhoz money to buy a train-car full of cassette tapes) to become a Soviet pop star and to pull large audiences—or “fill a stadium.” Even though his first “stadium” experience is far from successful, he does not give up. By chance he hears a tape with Iura Shatunov (Sergei Romanovich): Razin finds the boy and brings him to Moscow along with drummer Kolia (Petr Skvortsov), key-board player Serega (Danila Chvanov) and their song-writer Sergeiy Kuznetsov (Maksim Litovchenko). This was the official birth of the band “Laskovyi Mai.”
After watching the film, Shatunov himself remarked: “It’s just another story about ‘Laskovyi Mai’.”That is perhaps how the film should be viewed, as it creates and re-creates the band’s myth. Interestingly enough, the basic story—despite all its incredibility—still rings true and the characters carry the names of real people. The film, for example, tells us that in order to make the band known, Razin bought with kolkhoz money (which he was supposed to use for the purchase of a new combine harvester) a train-car full of cassette tapes. He then distributed, or rather, gave the tapes away to the train conductors and this eventually led to the enormous popularity of Laskovyi Mai all over the Soviet Union. The insane number of concerts (up to 40 a month), and numerous “doubles” of the band, which toured the country simultaneously with the real Laskovyi Mai in order to fulfill the growing demand, and of course the Olympic Stadium filled with fans—this is all true. We should give credit to Vinogradov here as the scene in the Olympic Stadium is cinematographically one of the most interesting parts in the film. The images of the concert (filmed on location) are interrupted by documentary footage from real Laskovyi Mai concerts of screaming teenage girls. This two-minute montage is a story in itself: a story about the boys’ life on the road, as their sudden fame at first seems to be exciting, but then turns into something utterly exhausting.
The film, however, is interesting not only because it gives an account of a long-forgotten band; indeed, Vinogradov’s film contains a lot of inaccuracies. So, for example, the film suggests that the band remained unchanged during the years of its existence, which is not the case, but this makes their break-up even more dramatic. One could even compile a list of the differences between the “real” Laskovyi Mai and its filmic counterpart, but this is not our goal here. What is interesting is Vinogradov’s ability to convey the mood of the time when such a band was possible. The perestroika era is captured in details: the fashionable varionki—“boiled” jeans; bandits in track suits (preferably “Adidas”); the power of “connections,” bribes and lies of the bureaucrats; and of course red carpets and Gorbachev’s portraits in offices. That is pretty much a summary of the late 1980s, excluding Gorbachev’s famous food stamps. With that in mind, images of these teenage boys eating bananas in the middle of winter, drinking soda and staring at their “first million” in a bag emphasize the surreal quality of their life.
About half way through the film another storyline appears: two run-away girls who have come to Moscow in pursuit of their “true love”: Iura and Kolia from Laskovyi Mai. The two girls become friends and spend their days “camping” outside of the house (Dom kul’tury) where the boys live. Eventually, they are tricked into going with a high-ranking official who is trying to harass Razin. The girls then become am “entertainment program” for some bandits. After being raped, they jump off of an apartment building, holding hands. The girls’ tragic storyline does not to quite fit in with the overall light and adventurous tone of the film, especially bearing in mind that the rape scene follows immediately after a rather comic presentation of a fight between the bandits and Razin/Laskovyi Mai. A sequence of frames cross-cutting between the fight outside (the bandits and Razin’s guard), their attempted invasion and the chaos inside the house follows the image of the empty bench, where girls used to in expectation to see the boys and be noticed. Razin’s enemy is defeated through tea: the boys pour piping hot tea of the windows on the bandits’ heads. However, the laughter disappears soon after, when the rape scene (barely a minute long) is presented as a montage of fast-changing frames of the girls’ screaming faces, twisted hands and slipping feet.
The scene’s disturbing content (the girls are about 15 years old) and its dramatic presentation stand out from the remainder of the film. Nevertheless, because the scene occurs within the last fifteen minutes of the film, it fits within a overall context. This episode goes along with the inevitable end of the band and the “era of perestroika, truth, and glasnost,” and perhaps its traumatic impact. At the end, the boys’ teacher (who lived with them)—even though she has “never heard anything dumber than [their] songs”—is crying “because things will never be the same again.” This seems to be the essence of the film: it will never be the same for the girls, who see no other way out than to commit suicide; nor for Laskovyi Mai, which does not exist any more; nor for the country at large.
The film suggests two different realities of the late 1980s: on the one hand, the reality of those who managed to use the chaos of perestroika to their advantage and quickly turn from “everything to nothing” (although mostly by all sorts of fabrications). Andrei Razin’s figure epitomizes this motto: he knows what he wants and is not afraid to go and get it. It seems that Manchurov even plays him in the same manner as Andrei Mironov played Ostap Bender: with a confident gait, hands in his pockets, and a seductive and sly smile. Razin, however, does not forget those who helped him along the way: he is generous enough to thank his mother or his best friend, and even buys a combine harvester for his kolkhoz. Manchurov’s acting is fun to watch, although his “Ostap Bender” parts seem to be much more organic and believable than his dramatic episodes with Lilia (his unfortunate girl-friend). On the other hand there is the reality of those who fall victims to the first group (of those who turn the chaos into their advantage). The absence of a happy ending seems to be rather appropriate: the two girls are dead, Razin’s love affair remains unresolved, the Soviet Union has collapsed—and Laskovyi Mai with it.
Essentially, though, Laskovyi Mai is about orphans. As Razin’s adoptive mother says, “not only children are orphans.” In Vinogradov’s interpretation, Laskovyi Mai is a band of orphans, both children and adults, whose only family is the band. The children-actors are very sincere in their need for attention and their desire to be loved; the boys’ acting is “natural, organic and not forced” (Dementsova). Hence, Laskovyi Mai could be read as a sort of coming-of-age story that tells about values of friendship and solidarity. At the same time, we could relate Razin’s words that a “new country [needs] new songs, we do not exist anymore,” not only to the band and the immediate historical context, but also to the nation as a whole as it ceases to exist in its old form: it, too, in a way, is orphaned.
Vinogradov’s remembrance of the late 1980s is in no way dramatic; this is not a “serious” period film. The film is fun, just like it is fun to remember the band itself with its primitive songs and boyish voices. Nevertheless, the film’s producer Tatiana Bykovskaia said in an interview:
A band like Laskovyi Mai could appear only in Russia. No one in the West would ever think about multiplying a band up to 10-15 “bands” in order to tour different towns simultaneously. There is nothing like that. People might have different attitudes towards these machinations, but it is a fact. There is probably not a single person in the country who has not heard about Laskovyi Mai. They got what they wanted. (“O gruppe…”)
Vinogradov’s Laskovyi Mai is quite an interesting and engaging interpretation of the band’s story, its instant success and its inevitable fall; and of Razin, in the midst of it all, who happened to be in the right place at the right time.
Mariya Y. Boston
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Ukolova, Valeriia, “‘Laskovyi Mai’ popal v kadr,” Moskovskii Komsomolets 24 October 2008.
“O gruppe ‘Laskovyi Mai’ snimaiut kino,” Kinokontsern Mosfil’m—Novosti 2 February 2009.
Laskovyi Mai, Russia, 2009
Color, 118 min.
Director Vladimir Vinogradov
Scriptwriter Elena Raiskaia
Cinematography Sergei Iudaev
Composer Aleksei Chelygin
Sound Evgenii Denisov
Cast Viacheslav Manucharov, Sergei Romanovich, Maksim Litovchenko, Inga Obol’dina, Petr Skvortsov, Danila Chvanov, Liudmila Zaitseva, Ekaterina Fedulova.
Producers: Efim Lubinskii, Tat’iana Bykovskaia.
Production Mosfil’m Dixi TV
Vladimir Vinogradov: Sweet May (Laskovyi Mai, 2009)
reviewed by Mariya Y. Boston © 2010