KinoKultura: Issue 42 (2013)

The Singer at the Microphone: Voice, Body, Traces and the Re-creation of Vladimir Vysotskii

By Polly McMichael, U of Nottingham


I started with a song on purpose, so that you wouldn’t be in any doubt who it is in front of you.
Vysotskii. Thank God I’m Alive (Vysotskii. Spasibo, chto zhivoi, dir. Petr Buslov, 2011)

A concert audience sits in dim light, in rapt attention, as the final strummed chords of the song ‘The End of “The Wolf Hunt” or Hunt from Helicopters’/‘Konets “Okhoty na volkov” ili Okhota s vertoletov’ resound. The singer, who is standing on the stage, elevated and alone, dressed in white and brightly lit under the spotlights, holding a seven-stringed acoustic guitar, speaks these words in verification of his identity. The men and women in the audience react to his words, recognizing both the figure on stage and the playful significance of what he has said. For there can be no doubt about the ownership of the voice they have heard or the body they see in front of them, so characteristic is each of the other; the voice expresses the body and the body is expressed by the voice. The audience members smile, laugh, applaud and scrutinize the figure on stage, revealing their emotions on being in the presence of Vladimir Vysotskii, and the intensity of their belief that he is who he says he is.

vysotskyThis sequence comes just over forty minutes into Buslov’s film Vysotskii. Thank God I’m Alive, and shows Vysotskii opening a performance in a Palace of Culture in Bukhara in July 1979. For the cinema audience, anticipation about a screen moment such as this one has steadily increased during what has preceded it: until his sudden emergence during the introduction given by the concert’s organizer the film has not shown Vysotskii on stage, and this moment is the first time we have seen him interact with an audience. The cinema audience, unlike the one in the concert hall, knows that the singer is putting his health at risk by appearing on stage: he has been diagnosed with pre-infarction angina, his predisposition to heart problems exacerbated by alcoholism, smoking and drug use, and that he is at present deprived of the heroin to which he is addicted. A year later he will die. The ill-fated performance we see underway here, on the stage of the Bukhara concert hall, is at the centre of Buslov’s film as a longed-for encounter between Vysotskii and his audience, and a tense prelude to what is to come, condensing physical, psychological, artistic and political pressures that the film suggests are impossible to withstand.

The appearance of Vysotskii. Thank God I’m Alive in cinemas was itself long-awaited: this utterance had first been heard from the lips of the Vysotskii character as the culmination of a trailer released on 24 December 2010. This moment of the singer’s authentication to his concert audience was central to the film’s publicity campaign and encapsulated the film’s extravagant central promise – that it would provide the experience of seeing and hearing the real Vysotskii. As proclaimed by the producer, head of the state-owned Channel One (ORT), Konstantin Ernst:

When we started making this film, we realized that an actor capable of playing Vladimir Semenovich did not actually exist. […] [W]e realized that making a film in Russia in which Vysotskii would be played not by Vysotskii [Vysotskogo budet igrat' ne Vysotskii] was simply not possible (‘Komanda o fil'me’ 2011).

The eventual release of Vysotskii. Thank God I’m Alive on 1 December 2011 was an event attended by immense clamour, much of it orchestrated by Channel One, the parent company of the film’s production company Direktsiia Kino. The film was shown to Putin at a special screening and he lent it his approval (Rowley 2013: 10). The vast amount of commentary it generated online was often negative, although far from immune to the hype. Critical and popular responses to Vysotskii. Thank God I’m Alive took their cue from the marketing, fixating on the relationship of the film’s narrative to Vysotskii’s biography and the success of the filmmakers’ efforts to realize a plausible body, face and voice for its central character. The critic Tat'iana Moskvina’s statements on the film’s failure to depict Vysotskii adequately are representative:

Vysotskii: Thank God I’m Alive is not a biographical film. The viewer will learn nothing of the difficult and wonderful life of the actor [artist] and poet, about his work in theatre or film or even about his love life [romany]. [...] The world of his songs is off-screen. [...] At the centre of the film is an artificial creature [sushchestvo], called to life by a new Frankenstein. It is a zombie, a corpse [mertviak], a Golem (Moskvina 2011).

Even the supporters of the film brought on to Channel One’s discussion show Pust' govoriat/Let them Talk (2011) could talk of little other than how shocking it was to experience Vysotskii reincarnated on screen in this way, somewhere akin to seeing a ghost. The problem of representing Vysotskii on screen, the film’s strategies in undertaking it, and viewers’ criticisms were all bound up with the question of the film’s genre, which adopted certain characteristics of the popular music biopic, and in particular its emphasis on authenticity. If in a live performance the audience experiences the body and voice of the performer as an organic unity, in sound film this effect is a composite, a filmic artifice: to use Chion’s term, the anacousmêtre, ‘the body-voice “complex” formed by a character whom we hear and see in a film’ (Chion 2009: 467), is the result of the synchronization of audio and video in a semblance of presence, of the reunited body and voice, albeit one to which cinema audiences’ perceptions are attuned and which therefore appears ‘“natural”’ (Doane 1980: 33).

In Vysotskii. Thank God I’m Alive the impetus to create a body-voice complex that represented a figure so recognizable was fraught with technical challenges, leading to a tortuous production process which cost the studio a reported $12 million, and reflected twenty-first century concerns about the figure of Vysotskii. In production from 2006, the project had its origins in 2004, when the screenwriter Eduard Volodarskii approached Vysotskii’s younger son, Nikita Vladimirovich Vysotskii, with a treatment bearing the title Chernyi chelovek/The Black Man, to which Nikita refused permission. Shortly after this, Nikita himself began writing a screenplay, also using the title The Black Man; it was this treatment that eventually developed into Vysotskii. Thank God I’m Alive, attracting backing from Channel One, who put it into production and cast Sergei Bezrukov in the role of Vysotskii (Shchigolev 2011). The resignations of two directors in succession suggested that dealing with the vision of Nikita and his Channel One backers was a challenge not only from a technical point of view, but because of issues of memory, authority and taste. Aleksandr Mitta, who had directed Vysotskii in the film Gori, gori moia zvezda/Shine, Shine My Star (1969), began as the project’s director. He later spoke of his unease about the producers’ insistence on an ‘identical recreation’, and claimed that the techniques used to re-create Vysotskii for the screen gave a photographic likeness but inauthentic facial expressivity: ‘his real facial movements [mimika] were the complete opposite of what is shown in the film. They were very light, mobile and ironic’ (Nechaev 2013). Mitta overlapped with his successor as director, Igor' Voloshin, remaining in a role as the film’s artistic supervisor [khudozhestvennyi rukovoditel'], and it was Voloshin, highly ambitious about the possibilities of CGI and prosthetics, who pushed for the use of the most advanced techniques available.[1] Voloshin later expressed similar misgivings to Mitta’s about the technical achievement (if not the same moral unease): he felt, he said, frustration that ‘it [wasn’t] yet possible to create simultaneously one-hundred per cent resemblance [skhozhest'] and a face that looks alive [zhivoe na vid litso]’, stating that what he had seen had shown too clearly that ‘the flesh wasn’t real’ [plot' ne nastoiashchaia] (‘Igor' Voloshin’ 2010). The project appeared to have stalled completely when Buslov, its final director, was appointed in early 2010. By his own account Buslov inherited a half-completed film in which the cast, screenplay and representational techniques were already firmly established, and in which the vision of the production company went unchallenged (Iusipova 2011).

vysotskyThe central, impossible claim outlined by Ernst and others, that the film would show Vysotskii himself, set the parameters within which the film’s mythology operated. At stake was a collapsing of the division between referent and representation: rather than showing an actor playing Vysotskii, the film asserted that what it had created was somehow ‘real’. To create the illusion, it concealed the face of its lead actor, Sergei Bezrukov, beneath a prosthetic mask, wig and facial hair, making him into a plausible double.[2] To ensure this illusion was not dispelled, Bezrukov was given a second short role in the film, that of Iura, Vysotkii’s understudy for the role of Khlopusha in the Taganka theatre’s production of Pugachev, and stills were leaked showing a recognizable Bezrukov as Iura in conversation with an unrecognizable Bezrukov as Vysotskii, thus muddying the waters.[3] The Vysotskii Bezrukov played had two different voices: his spoken voice was dubbed by Nikita, but the voice heard when the character performed songs in the film was from Vysotskii’s own recordings of his songs. Information about the research and technical processes that went into creating the visual likeness was circulated widely, and the idea that the lead actor’s identity was a ‘mystery’ proclaimed loudly (and to much derision) until several months after the film’s release; details of how the voice had been dealt with, meanwhile, were kept secret.[4] Everyone working on the film had a clause in their contracts forbidding mention of the actor’s name (Iusipova 2011) and Bezrukov’s co-stars said that they rarely saw him out of make-up during the entire period of shooting (‘Komanda o fil'me’ 2012).

Underlying the promise of a tour de force of film technology that would deliver a twenty-first century Vysotskii, in whose living, breathing existence it was possible to believe, more complex issues were at work concerning Vysotskii’s legacy and the authority (legally and culturally) to use his biography, image and songs. The very possibility of producing a feature film about Vysotskii that featured performances of his songs was a matter that hinged on the approval of Nikita, official guardian of Vysotskii’s memory. Nikita and his elder brother Arkadii, together with Vysotskii’s widow, Marina Vlady, are the copyright holders for Vysotskii’s songs, and it is reported that Nikita had in the past withheld permission for their usage in film productions.[5] Nikita’s centrality to the production of Vysotskii. Thank God I’m Alive allowed the production company to stress how respectful their film would be to Vysotskii’s memory, arguing that it was undertaking a task of moral necessity in reminding younger audiences of his greatness.[6]

Genre: Re-enactment, authority, reclaiming

This section discusses how Vysotskii. Thank God I’m Alive aligns with broader tendencies that are at stake when films attempt to represent historical events and characters, specifically in the genre of the biopic and its subgenre, the popular music biopic. Depicting a real-life figure of Vysotskii’s stature in a feature film entailed making controversial decisions about narrative, casting, performance, production design, cinematography and sound. For its decisions in each of these areas and for the film as a whole the production company surely expected criticism—at the very least, such a film could not avoid the charge of having exploited to commercial ends the image of a figure intrinsically linked with a belief that art could remain non-commodified. More productive than a list of the perceived outrages the film committed against Vysotskii’s memory, though, is an analysis of the representative strategies underlying decisions taken by the production company; these, I argue, echo elements of the ideology of historical film genres, especially popular music biopics, which are in turn linked to an ideologized interpretation of the musical side of Vysotskii’s legacy. Adopting these modes of representation and discussing them widely in the film’s marketing certainly did not fend off criticism, but, far more importantly, ensured that the film would attract audiences to cinemas: it was a production which people felt they had to see for themselves to test the film’s re-creation against their own imaginations (Bondarev 2011). Its engagement with genre conventions allowed the film to deal in notions of ‘truth’ and ‘authenticity’ that operated in complex, meandering ways, closely linked to the cultural politics of the latest stage of the Putin era.

vysotskyThe workings of the biopic genre found fertile ground in Vysotskii’s biography, focusing in particular on his activities as a performer of songs of his own composition, in the genre called avtorskaia pesnia.[7] Vysotskii attained a level of fame and popular recognition that was unprecedented in Soviet culture, via a career in which he supplemented acting in theatre and on screen with writing and performing songs. The nature of his cultural authority was, for the time, unique, as both Lazarski and Hutchings suggest (Lazarski 1992; Hutchings 2004: 135-149). Vysotskii’s reputation was unusual in encompassing ‘high’ literary culture as well as several layers of popular culture, and also as the product of interactions between representations in different cultural forms (theatre, film, television, concerts, recordings, and so on). Running through his multiple representations and their dissemination was a unifying discourse of authenticity (Hutchings 2004: 140-142). In the absence of officially published information about Vysotskii, rumors circulated which drew on the fragments of biographical detail that were known in conjunction with what could be gleaned from his creative output. The temptation to conflate biography and fiction was particularly marked in reactions to his songs. Listeners ascribed to the biographical Vysotskii the experiences of his songs’ protagonists, and it was imagined that the singer himself must have fought in battles against the Nazi invaders, or served a sentence in the gulag (Vysotskii 2000: 23, 149; Lazarski 1992: 62; Hutchings 2004: 137, 140; Platonov 2012: 58-59). Later songs left the boundary between author and lyrical subject more ambiguous (Fedina 1990; Lazarski 1992: 61). Texts that foregrounded the notion of personal sincerity and revelled in the depiction of the seamier side of Soviet life combined with an unpolished performance style to suggest that the Vysotskii on stage was a version of the man himself.

Vysotskii’s untimely death in July 1980 (during the Moscow Olympics) and the public mourning that followed seemed emblematic of irresolvable tensions between official and unofficial spheres of Soviet society (Smith 1984: 175; Lazarski 1992: 67; Goscilo 2002: 303-306; Rowley 2013: 7-8). In fact his loss set into motion a process of memorialization and canonization that, though haltingly, was taken up by official culture, in which his songs began to be acknowledged as musical and literary texts. This belated audibility contributed to further layering of the meanings associated with Vysotskii as a phenomenon of mass culture: he was a figure who had died too soon, before he had attained his deserved status in the Russian cultural firmament. As the Soviet Union itself stuttered towards its demise Vysotskii and the other bards, together with the genre they created, became identified with a heroic discourse in which writers and artists were, of necessity, dissidents, fighting against a repressive state for their art’s ability to speak the truth (Cherednichenko 1994: 205-211; Daughtry 2009: 38-39). In the twenty-first century Vysotskii’s memory remains a locus of cultural authority and continues to be appropriated by different agencies as a byword for authenticity and the experiences of those who lived through the post-war era.[8]

Vysotskii. Thank God I’m Alive fictionalizes an infamous event from the last year of Vysotskii’s life. In late July 1979, while in Uzbekistan to give a series of concerts, Vysotskii collapsed and was reportedly dead for several minutes. He was resuscitated by Anatolii Fedotov, a doctor who was travelling with him in a private capacity. Accounts given by those present give the cause as a drug overdose, a heart attack or, somewhat implausibly, food poisoning (Bakin 2010: 600-602; Novikov 2010: 325-326; Perevozchikov 2011: 84-92, 123-129; Cherniak 2011).[9] The film shows the events leading up to this purported death and resurrection and their immediate aftermath, saturating its retelling of the episode with portents of Vysotskii’s actual death a year later. It also weaves in a narrative inspired by other real events, the arrest and prosecution in Izhevsk of two men charged with arranging unauthorized concerts (so-called ‘left concerts’ [levye kontserty]), who implicated Vysotskii in the ensuing criminal trial (Bakin 2010: 594-596). The film focuses on these two main biographical fragments but is also preoccupied more broadly with the more sensational aspects of Vysotskii’s biography and myth. In particular it refers to his earnings and lifestyle, his alcoholism and drug abuse, his spells in hospital and failing health, his relationship with the KGB, his marriage to a French film star, his extramarital relationships, and his dealings with Iurii Liubimov and the Taganka and with the managers and impresarios who arranged his solo concerts.[10] As Afanas'ev points out, the film uses elements of Vysotskii’s celebrity in different ways, sometimes reinforcing and sometimes revising or undermining them: so, for example, the film concretizes the widely cited legend that ‘only Vysotskii and Brezhnev owned a Mercedes Benz’, but downplays the centrality of the turbulent and passionate long-distance marriage to Vlady (Afanas'ev 2012). It presents a version of Vysotskii which was not widely seen during his life, but which, overshadowed by what we know now and by expectations of the genre, we feel we recognize: an exhausted, failing Vysotskii, nearing the end of his life, physically weak, dependent on drugs and doctors, drained of creativity and tormented by his inability to write.

The film opens with a confrontation of illegal practices in entertainment by the Uzbek KGB. Leonid Borisovich Fridman (Dmitrii Astrakhan), responsible for arranging concerts at the Tashkent Philharmonia, is being questioned by a colonel in the Uzbek KGB, Viktor Mikhailovich Bekhteev (Andrei Smoliakov), and claims he can obtain evidence incriminating Vysotskii, in the form of the ticket stubs [koreshki] from unregistered (levye) concerts. Meanwhile Vysotskii (Bezrukov), on sick leave from the Taganka, has just discharged himself from hospital and is trying to arrange to go to Paris to visit Vlady.[11] As he applies for permission to travel he is apprehended by the KGB colonel who watches over activities at the Taganka (Vladimir Il'in). This KGB colonel warns Vysotskii of the arrests in Izhevsk, and advises him not to travel abroad and to tone down his concert activities. Returning to his Moscow apartment, Vysotskii ignores a warning from his hospital doctor that performances in the heat of Uzbekistan could cost him his life, and gives in to the demands of his manager, Pavel Leonidov (Maksim Leonidov), to accept Fridman’s invitation. Vysotskii flies to Uzbekistan in the company of Leonidov, the actor and entertainer Vsevolod Kulagin (Ivan Urgant) and his doctor friend, Anatolii Nefedov (Andrei Panin), leaving his girlfriend, Tat'iana Ivleva (Oksana Akin'shina), in Moscow.[12] On arrival they are greeted by a nervous Fridman and settle into a hotel room in Bukhara already rigged with the KGB’s listening devices. Further intrigue and tension appear with the revelation that Leonidov has not brought enough of Vysotskii’s ‘medicine’ [lekarstvo]. After a failed attempt to convince a local doctor to prescribe morphine, Nefedov instructs Ivleva to join them with the supply of the drug that has been left in Vysotskii’s flat, in a telephone conversation overheard by the local KGB team. Her journey involves a long taxi drive across the Uzbek desert with a driver who attempts to rape her. She is saved by Bekhteev but then interrogated by him, and claims that the drugs are her own. Bekhteev lets her join Vysotskii and take him the drugs, but confiscates her passport. She arrives at the concert hall just as Vysotskii collapses onstage, during the second of his concerts, which because he is too ill to sing has been a monologue delivered to the audience. The following morning he seems recovered, but after their visit to the Bukhara market Ivleva finds him lying unconscious in the hotel room. Nefedov administers an electric shock to the heart, but announces that ‘Volodia has died’. After Ivleva pleads with him he injects Vysotskii with adrenalin and performs CPR. Vysotskii regains consciousness, with no idea of the danger he has been in. The moment of catastrophe is tracked, from the adjoining hotel room, by the local KGB team and the Moscow colonel who has joined them. The next day Vysotskii and his companions leave, but are stopped at the airport on the pretext of Ivleva’s missing passport. Vysotskii is summoned to speak to Bekhteev, who attempts to recruit him as an informer by threatening to charge Ivleva with the possession and trafficking of drugs. Vysotskii shows Bekhteev the needle marks on his arm to show his refusal to cooperate: Ivleva is innocent and their only threat against him is to charge him with possession of drugs, an outcome which he is ready to face. At the climax of this stand-off, Fridman enters with a burning urn containing the incriminating ticket stubs—his own act of defiance. Bekhteev allows Vysotskii, Ivleva and the others to leave and, disobeying the instructions of the incredulous Moscow KGB colonel, tears up the documents in the files on both Vysotskii and Fridman. As the aeroplane takes off, we see Vysotskii begin composing his poem ‘Moi chernyi chelovek v kostiume serom’/‘My Black Man in a Grey Suit’: lines from the poem are heard in the voice-off of Vysotskii’s character as the film’s final moments show his hand committing the words to paper with a ballpoint pen onto an empty Marlboro packet.[13] Ivleva looks on in tears.[14]

Vysotskii. Thank God I’m Alive is among several films of the Putin era set in the post-war Soviet Union that offer themselves as reassessments of Soviet ideology, culture and everyday life (Beumers 2012). Simultaneously there has been a resurgence in interest in producing biopics, which, as a subcategory of historical film, contribute to the re-evaluation of the past through the subjects they present (Graham 2010: 195).[15] Custen’s study of the biopic genre is based on Hollywood’s output from the late 1920s to the 1960s, but the characteristics he identifies can also be observed in more recent examples and in the subgenre of the popular music biopic. According to his outline, biopics select individuals whose talent is presented as bringing them into conflict with the surrounding society and reveal inherent connections between their subjects’ extraordinary qualities and their suffering (Custen 1992: 67-75). Music biopics too represent their subjects as extraordinary individuals marked out by talent, narrating their ‘rise to stardom’ and using the backdrop of the entertainment industry as a means of structuring a narrative about the musician’s private and public life and the tensions between them (Marshall and Kongsgaard 2012: 351-353; Schlotterbeck 2008: 84). This setting enables the measuring out of doses of ‘scandal and hagiography’ (Babington 2006: 82), while balancing the demands of the audience’s prior knowledge of the subject and desire to recognize what is on screen with the inclusion of new revelations or re-evaluated detail. Popular music biopics frequently display a preoccupation with their subject’s death, which is prefigured with looming inevitability (Atkinson 1993: 21, 27). The narrative is often one in which the subject’s professional triumphs as an entertainer are soured by personal tragedy or trauma (Hanson 1988: 15; Rose 1994: 13; Babington 2006: 89), and/or in which the innate ‘sincerity’ and ‘authenticity’ of the popular music performer is destroyed as it is transformed into a commodity of the music industry (Babington 2006: 87; Marshall and Kongsgaard 2012: 351). The production of a popular musician’s biopic, as Inglis observes, is itself part of the solidification of the subject into commodity, in that it can reinvigorate sales via a soundtrack album (Inglis 2007: 89).

It is clear that the selection of events that form the narrative of Vysotskii: Thank God I’m Alive precludes the story of a triumphant rise to fame, or any kind of longer narrative dealing with Vysotskii’s achievements as a singer and songwriter, let alone his career in theatre or film. Perhaps this is merely a function of the film’s commentary on how Vysotskii’s participation in a musical career was limited by the cultural practices of the Soviet state. Certainly the film appears to show only the unhappy end of a conventional story of talent and self-destruction, dealing with the un-making, rather than the making, of a career, the wasting of a gift and the progression towards a fast-approaching death. Yet the tight chronological focus on this particular moment in his life—the concerts, his collapse, the issue of KGB surveillance and a final confrontation with the authorities—serves to apply the same preoccupations of the popular music biopic, with private and public, authenticity and compromise, but to stretch them more widely across a wholesale recreation of Vysotskii’s life as emblematic of late Soviet society. The notion of sincerity is shown to be at issue not only where stage and backstage meet, but also in confrontations between the totalitarian, corrupt state and the individual straining to retain his/her personal integrity. The film posits a Vysotskii denied his right to a private self in two different ways: first because he must get up onto a stage and give a performance that purports to be a giving of himself; second, because his involvement in providing entertainment, with the forays that entails into the grey economy of the Soviet Union, has left him vulnerable to the scrutiny and blackmail of the KGB.

vysotskyBiopics work by creating ‘a convincing re-enactment of events that are well-known to [their] audiences’ (Carrigy 2011: 86), and therefore adopt authenticating strategies in order to attest to the realness and veracity of the worlds they depict. Custen identifies several conventions which include voiceover and captions that make overt the claim of being ‘based on real events’ or ‘true story’, and the inclusion of ‘real’ materials such as photographs (Custen 1992: 51-56). Vysotskii. Thank God I’m Alive revealed a preoccupation with Vysotskii’s era and its legacy in the present in the investment it made in verisimilitude and re-enactment. Mirroring their attempt to give body and voice to Vysotskii was the filmmakers’ self-declared commitment to re-creating the Soviet Union of 1979 as it really was. Vysotskii. Thank God I’m Alive is a mosaic of fragments, each asserting its authenticity and its connection to the time and the people it shows; it is a painstakingly realized simulacrum, crammed with relics of the ‘real’ Vysotskii. The cinematography often dwells on surfaces and their textures, on small details, which often appear in sharp focus in the foreground as characters soften into a blur in the background. A ‘making of’ documentary produced by Channel One provided striking commentary on the process that led to the selection of objects, costumes and locations. The costumes used were, whenever possible, vintage originals. The interior of Vysotskii’s flat on Malaia Gruzinskaia was recreated in minute detail from photographs, with furniture and other belongings loaned to the set from the Vysotskii House Museum at the Taganka. An exact replica of his blue Mercedes was constructed. The central section of Kutuzovskii Prospekt was closed for a day to allow the filming of scenes in which Vysotskii drives around Moscow. The crew spoke of their delight, on commencing location shoots in Uzbekistan, on finding stagnation-era vehicles in good preservation and indoor and outdoor locations that could be used with minimal adaptation. Two airports in Belarus, Minsk and Brest, stood in for Moscow’s Domodedovo and Tashkent’s airport respectively, their stagnation-era architecture sufficiently untouched to suggest period authenticity. The use of locations in former Soviet republics, contributed to a nostalgic projection of a post-Soviet space reunited by feelings about Vysotskii.[16] The Palace of Culture in Bukhara in which the performance scenes were filmed was one in which Vysotskii had been due to perform in July 1979. Nikita recounts in the documentary that people who had tickets for the original cancelled concert came to be extras in the audience for these scenes (Snigireva 2011). Vysotskii. Thank God I’m Alive therefore presents itself as the fulfillment of the long-suspended promise, which it has the Vysotskii character make at the close of his ill-fated second performance: ‘I will definitely come back to this city, and I will sing.’

Referring to the music biopics Ray (Hackford, 2004) and Walk the Line (Mangold, 2005), Marshall and Kongsgaard note the prevalence of the word ‘uncanny’ when reviewers comment on the physical and vocal impersonations of the films’ subjects:

Bound up in that word are implications of haunting, the ghostly, the supernatural. The majority of popular music biopic subjects are dead. [...] Biopics are uncanny: we see Ray Charles but we don’t see him. [...] Rather than enabling the subject to live on screen, the biopic affirms their death (Marshall and Kongsgaard 2012: 358).

This set of observations not only resonates with comments made about the ghostliness of the Vysotskii figure’s on-screen appearance, but also suggests a more complex aspect of the way in which contemporary biopics can operate, and, more specifically still, ways in which the musical aspects of Vysotskii’s life in particular set out the film’s engagement with the notion of presence and absence, both thematically and filmically. As I have outlined above, biopics base themselves on the presupposition that a historical past, a past of events that occurred and people who lived, can be represented on film. Yet the more indices of that past that are accessible to the filmmakers, and therefore also to the film’s eventual audience, the more problematic this representation turns out to be. This is because of a function of film itself, which, as I will argue, becomes in this context extremely closely linked with the ideologies associated with the voice and its mediation through sound recordings. Live action cinema, like photography, has a documentary mode inherently within it, in that each shot must show something that was once physically present in front of the camera. More than that, because of the nature of the chemical processes that produce them, both photography and cinema have been regarded as offering a way of showing that relies not on symbolic representation or a representation based on resemblance, but on an image based on the presence of an index, a trace that constitutes a connection to the material presence of the referent—that is to say the object, person, movement or moment that the shot contains. Therefore, as Doane puts it, ‘mainstream fiction and documentary film are anchored by the indexical image and both exploit, in different ways, the idea of the image as imprint or trace, hence sustaining a privileged relation to the referent’ (Doane 2007: 132). The relationship between image and referent is what underpins the conventional biopic as much as it does other genres of live action cinema, but is complicated by the fact that two levels of prior event are being evoked: the first being a specific historical time, occupied by the biographical subject of the film, and the second the events in front of the camera, which result in the actor’s traces. Because the biopic genre is one that claims a foundation in the prior set of events that once really happened, its task is to persuade the viewer to believe in the body of the actor as the body of the biographical figure who once lived, a figure which therefore, in Comolli’s formulation, ‘has at least two bodies, that of the imagery and that of the actor who represents him for us’ (Comolli 1978: 44). Carrigy analyses the tendency of recent biopics to draw on an accumulation of extra-textual visual material in securing the referentiality of the film’s images; the biopics she writes of as re-enactments privilege their authenticity not so much to the events and figures in the biographical narrative, as to the pre-existing images of these events and people which have been circulated in visual media (Carrigy 2011: 83-109). In such biopics, therefore, the result is a disruption to the apparently stable relationship of historical referent and image, because of tensions with another referent and image combination, that of the accumulation of visual material that acts as the trace of the historical subject. Authenticity in these biopics is established by revealing the level and quality of research into biographical detail, which includes an immersion in and attempt to re-create these pre-existing visual traces (Carrigy 2011: 87-89). Like them, Vysotskii. Thank God I’m Alive bears the same level of foregrounding of researched detail in terms of its attempt to use pre-existing visual traces as the source of verisimilitude as do the biopic re-enactments which Carrigy discusses: photographs and footage of Vysotskii from a variety of sources, including filmed concert performances, home-made film and feature film performances. Three levels of ‘before’ therefore compete to be accommodated in the film: the ‘before’ of the historical event and the film’s subject, the ‘before’ that is the visual trace of the historical event and subject, and the ‘before’ constituted by the traces of actors, sets and objects as the film is made. As well as these visual traces, though, Vysotskii. Thank God I’m Alive is forced to deal with the sonic referent and to utilize and recreate traces of Vysotskii’s voice. The body-voice complex that creates Vysotskii on the screen, the result of the film’s attempt to establish one kind of authenticity—that of physical similarity and believability—ends by working against the authenticity of the traces Vysotskii left in visual sources and sound recordings, as I will argue below.

Traces: Liveness and absence

Vysotskii. Thank God I’m Alive attempts to re-create a living Vysotskii on screen while remaining fixated on his death and absence, a paradox commonly encountered in popular music biopics. Each strategy adopted in re-creating or substituting Vysotskii reveals a preoccupation with what he was in life, and the authenticity that it is possible to attain by using or evoking his traces. Physical and vocal similarity was central—Vysotskii’s face was molded as a mask and his voice re-constituted from recordings and a resemblance with his son, which all but obliterated the presence of Bezrukov on screen and eliminated him from the film’s audio. The face and the voice were the areas of greatest controversy, because in them the index of Vysotskii as historical referent and physical presence was strongest: the mask was even rumoured to have been cast from Vysotskii’s death mask, which would make it one imprint away from his real body.[17] Vysotskii. Thank God I’m Alive utilizes the audio tracks that Vysotskii left, editing them into the audio to reinstate Vysotskii’s voice into the body of the Vysotskii character in the scenes in which he is singing. This is far from being an unusual strategy for a popular music biopic (Inglis 2007: 88-89) and one which indicates a particular understanding of authenticity, a privileging of the recorded legacy of the performer and the aura of his/her voice. In reinstating Vysotskii’s voice, as preserved through sound recording, into a reconstruction of the body that produced it, the film revealed an interpretation of authenticity that encompassed issues of similarity and lifelike presence on screen, but exploited the audience’s prurience about Vysotskii and mourning of him. The focus on Vysotskii’s body as a kind of resurrected corpse was, of course, predetermined by the selection of this particular biographical episode, overloaded with signifiers of infirmity and impending death. The on-screen Vysotskii, a pale mirage of the filmic and photographic traces that constitute him, appears at the margins of scenes: the character is often shot from behind or in profile, or lying prostrate, the camera level with his body; in closeup his face is translucent, ill and sweating. The central scenes of his death and resuscitation in the hotel room are a series of shocking representations of what can happen to a body between death and resuscitation: as the characters around panic, the body is lifted on a carpet and dumped back onto the floor, the face is slapped, the heart receives an electric shock, the neck is penetrated by a hypodermic needle, the chest is pummeled. These kinds of indignities, more usual on screen in a medical drama, are all the more uncomfortable because they are happening to a figure so physically familiar. They epitomize the central decision of the film to show Vysotskii’s body as his tragic flaw, but also make uncomfortably visible the idea that audiences’ consumption of Vysotskii was among the factors that depleted his strength and health. We watch in horror. The voice belonging to Nikita, in which we hear the Vysotskii character speak, is suitably gravelly and hoarse, but it too is markedly lifeless in intonation: the character mumbles and speaks quietly compared to the other actors; the script reinforces his near-silencing by giving him relatively few lines. The low volume and vocal lethargy create a disconcerting intimacy—and to emphasize this, as Vysotskii begins to faint on stage, we hear his voice as if from inside his own head. The vocal portrait appears inspired by the connotations of exhaustion that are present in Vysotskii’s singing voice, but contributes to the film’s representation of Vysotskii as an inert body hurtling towards death because of the actions of those around him.

vysotskyThe filmmakers seemed bent not only on basing the film on extant visual and audible traces, but also by showing these traces in their production: to borrow Barthes’ celebrated phrase, it depicts over and over again the notion that ‘[t]he “grain” is the body in the voice as it sings, the hand as it writes, the limb as it performs’ (Barthes 1977: 188), as if in this we will find the essence of Vysotskii’s self. It is teasingly suggested throughout that the biographical Vysotskii and his activities could be fixed and known from the ways in they were documented. The hand as it writes and the resulting verses on a torn cigarette packet offer one dimension of this, conjuring up the specter of an archive of fragments and relics. In dwelling on the duality in relation to truth that it presents as being inherent in a late Soviet proliferation of documents, the film performs its characteristic move: it promises knowledge while foregrounding its absence, proffering the possibility of a Vysotskii whose movements and activities might be conclusively tracked, while at the same time suggesting the ways in which documentary evidence can be manipulated. When we first see the Vysotskii character on screen he is negotiating Soviet regulations on obtaining a permission to travel abroad, asking for his ‘reference’ [kharakteristika] from the Taganka to be signed and stamped by the theatre’s administration.[18] In response to an actor colleague’s remark that ‘we thought you were in hospital’, Vysotskii responds ‘but here I am’ [a ia – vot on], waving the document that attests to his official employment. This line indicates much about the film’s representation of the collision between the state and the person. As Vysotskii, his entourage and Fridman on one side and the KGB character on the other negotiate the border between documented legality and documented illegality, documents are shown to be powerful not as bearers of truth, but as a means of manipulating it: the records in the Bukhara Palace of Culture are fiddled, drugs mis-prescribed, airplane tickets issued for bribes, false confessions signed; almost everyone in the film is implicated in a process in which documents come to stand for the person but are apt to be manipulated.

The authenticity associated with Vysotskii was suggested most intensely by his songs, situated largely in the possibility of ‘liveness’. To perform live is to put oneself into the same physical space as an audience, offering up what is imagined as an encounter that is not mediated; such situations, in conventional understanding, are privileged by ‘the immediacy, the chemistry, the sense of personal contact’ they engender (Auslander 2009: 108). An ideology of proximity pervaded avtorskaia pesnia, as Platonov explains: ‘guitar poetry authenticates the bard not just as a performer, but also as “one of us”’ (Platonov 2012: 71). Yet by far the largest of Vysotskii’s audiences was one that never saw him in the flesh or heard him sing in concert, but knew him through the circulation of recordings (Lazarskii 1992: 64). Magnitizdat, the recording and exchange of records on reel-to-reel tapes, extended the relationship that the author-performers of avtorskaia pesnia described using words like ‘conversation’ and ‘contact’ (Platonov 2012: 68-72). Encountering a bard in magnitizdat meant hearing his voice and guitar via technological mediation, and thus a magnitizdat recording resounded with its author-performer’s absence. Nonetheless, such recordings were suffused in the potential of their performers’ presence; the potency of this and the sheer strangeness of the mode of listening that magnitizdat engendered are suggested by Daughtry:

[t]he dominant listening practice for the genre […] privileged comprehension of the unfolding lyrics over any kind of embodied engagement with the music’s “groove.” This dynamic combined with the often poor sound quality of the dubbed recordings to create a situation in which these songs were listened to with an intensity bordering on ferocity (Daughtry 2009: 38).

Daughtry describes the unusual materiality of the magnitizdat recording: fragile when manifested as an individual exemplar—reel to reel tape was prone to being stretched or twisted, to breaking, liable to be ‘wiped’ by contact with a magnetic field, or to other forms of deterioration—and, as a medium, poised to be rendered technically obsolete, it was magnitizdat’s multiplication and proliferation through a ‘rhizomic’ mode of distribution, and its preservation thanks to the devotion of collectors, that ensured the survival of these recordings, now re-encoded in mp3 and other digital formats (Daughtry 2009). In their original form, these sound recordings are another kind of trace: the polarization of magnetic regions on the tape is the residue of sound waves, fixed and immutable on its surface; as Wallach puts it, ‘[s]ound […] emanates from vibrating bodies [and] has the power […] to vibrate other bodies with which it comes into contact (Wallach 2003: 42).

As reels rotated, sounds issued from speakers and a community listened, the transfer of sound waves from singing body to objects of sound reproduction and transmission to listening body suggested contact that was near-physical. The traces Vysotskii left on magnetic tape were bodily: his rough, rasping timbre – inimitable, though much imitated – made audible the sensation of the production of the voice inside the body, and its extrusion from within, through the throat and mouth, where palette, tongue, teeth and lips extended the ‘r’ and ‘kh’ consonants. On recordings his vocal tone frequently tips over from singing to something that is not singing – a tone of speech or laughter, a shout or a roar – which gives it the potential to convey an array of emotional or bodily experiences. Particularly characteristic in Vysotskii’s voice was its hoarse, rasping quality, an apparent slowing of its transition through his throat, a texture of physical straining: its guttural and fricative sounds encoded the body’s resistance to the production of pure, unfettered tone.[19] Critics and listeners sometimes suggested that there was something manufactured about this, that Vysotskii ‘worked on’ his voice (Platonov 2012: 67)—Vysotskii responded to such suggestions by saying that he was simply singing ‘the only way I can’ [uzh kak mogu] (Vysotskii 2000: 197)—certainly, though, the ‘index of “bad living”’ is audible (Smith 2008: 146).[20] Cherednichenko hears in Vysotskii’s voice ‘a cry and a hoarseness [krik i khrip] [which] sound as strength and torturedness [isterzannost'] combined (Cherednichenko 1994: 213). His voice confronts the listener with its potential for exhaustion and, ultimately, its silence. Listening to Vysotskii is to hear how a voice can harm itself: it is used to underline the verbal texts of his songs, while working to produce meaning that is beyond words and located in the performer’s body.

Vysotskii. Thank God I’m Alive illustrates the division between presence and absence as it re-creates the scenes in which the singer performs, scripting his words to the audience from real concert recordings. The character of Kulagin intervenes from the stage in his intermission, offering the audience a song by Vysotskii in his own interpretation: ‘If we go to listen to concert of Mozart we expect to hear him, not to see him on stage […] You will hear Vladimir Vysotskii’s songs, so there’s been no deceit [vse bez obmana].’ His substitution is met by audience disapproval. In the scenes that follow, Vysotskii speaks from the stage, and then collapses as he makes for the wings. As he falls and Leonidov and Nefedov support him and lead him backstage, the KGB agents in the recording booth panic, anticipating the reaction of the Party elite attending this performance: one is heard to say ‘switch something on, quickly’ [vkliuchai, bystree, chto-nibud']. At this point the recording ‘Hunt from Helicopters’ begins to play, mid-verse. What we hear purports to be the recording made during the earlier concert, which is entirely logical, given that the film uses the recording that dubbed Bezrukov’s image in that scene. A few minutes later, as Vysotskii lies unconscious backstage, the song concludes and the reels clunk to a halt. There is a pause, before one of the senior Party officials stands and begins the applause, gradually joined by all those around him. The ten seconds or so of silence that interpose between the recording’s end and the concert audience’s response are included, it seems, precisely in order to remind the cinema audience of Vysotskii’s death and his ensuing absence from all experiences of hearing his music. The film keeps in mind the notion that knowing Vysotskii from recordings means absence, even while it teases its spectator with the simulacrum of liveness and the real presence of Vysotskii.

vysotskyThere is a further ambivalence about sound recording. The film’s painstaking reconstruction of the era it depicts includes various technical paraphernalia associated with sound recording, broadcasting, transmission and communication— tape recorders, cassette players, microphones, radios, telephones, PA systems, a Quarz Super 8 video camera, and so on, suggesting a proliferation of media to complement the putative piles of documents. The apparatus of sound amplification and recording in particular takes on a duality that seems inspired by Vysotskii’s own evocation of the microphone in his diptych ‘Pevets u mikrofona’/‘The Singer at the Microphone’ and ‘Pesnia mikrofona’/‘The Song of the Microphone’, in which the microphone is imagined as animate and as a perfidious, serpent-shaped confessor: ‘I am sure that if I somewhere tell a lie / It will cruelly amplify my lie’ (Vysotskii 2008 vol. 2, 25-29, 25). For the singer the technologies of the stage and of sound reproduction place him under scrutiny that, simultaneously, he craves and is destroyed by. The film’s very first images and sounds are those of the reel-to-reel tape recorder: we hear the clunk of the tapes being set to record and, in full-screen close-up, see the reels begin to rotate and the counter advance. The trick of this audio-visual combination is that it suggests magnitizdat before revealing that what is underway is the interrogation of Fridman and his colleague by Bekhteev.[21] What appears troubling about the film is its reconciliation between these two interpretations of the meaning of sound recording as a medium in which the ‘real’ Vysotskii is captured. Eventually Bekhteev is able to listen to Vysotskii as no other character in the film, aside from Ivleva, is able. After his death and resuscitation, Ivleva and Bekhteev hear (and overhear) Vysotskii’s whispered, confession-like prayer, in which he intones the names of all those close to him and asks their forgiveness. The scene cuts from Vysotskii and Ivleva, shot from above, he prostrate, she curled up in sleep, to Bekhteev and his recording and listening equipment in the adjoining room. We hear the sound as it is compressed through Bekhteev’s headphones as he, too, drifts off into sleep, the ash poised to drop from the end of his cigarette. In contrast to the other members of the KGB team (one of whom remarks, on hearing Vysotskii begin to sing: ‘why does he need to shout like that?’), Bekhteev is revealed to be Vysotskii’s ideal listener. For all the fact that he is represented carrying out the repressive policies of the state, Bekhteev remains apart from its corruption, a fierce defender of state property and law, rather than a malign agent seeking to repress legitimate freedom of thought or to entrap citizens falsely. He is horrified by what he learns of Vysotskii’s dissipation and of the ravages his drug use has inflicted upon his health, yet remains receptive to the truth imparted in Vysotskii’s words and voice, and the experiences written upon his body.

vysotsky vysotsky vysotsky


Vysotskii. Thank God I’m Alive uses elements of the popular music biopic and the biopic re-enactment to deal with its subject. Its re-creation of Vysotskii ‘himself’ as a body-voice complex comprising a body, and especially a face, that was uncomfortably close and vocal tracks that were in indexical relation to the subject was widely regarded as distasteful, and even as an act of sacrilege. Underlying the unease were concerns about ways in which it appropriated Vysotskii’s memory. The first charge was that the film put Vysotskii’s persona to use in the name of profit—and apparently legal downloads of Vysotskii’s recordings increased nine-fold in the week following the film’s release (Pust' govoriat 2011). The second, more sinister, inference had to do with the re-evaluation of Vysotskii’s relationship with the Soviet authorities and particularly the KGB: the film dared to show Vysotskii embroiled in a morally dubious demi-monde, albeit as its passive victim, and this depiction contrasted with a sympathetic portrayal of the agent of state surveillance, Bekhteev. Fedotov, who saves Vysotskii’s life, has an uneasy status, poised between drug-pusher and private physician, and we are left to understand that it is to Bekhteev that we should be grateful: his humane treatment ensures one last year of Vysotskii’s life and creativity, by saving his reputation and his relationships with his loved ones. In the run-up to the 2012 presidential bid, this seemed uncomfortably close to a legitimization of Putin’s career in the security services, as well as an endorsement of the moral rectitude of the twenty-first Russian state and its organs of political control.

vysotskyMore fundamentally, though, the film revealed aspects of the way in which the audible traces Vysotskii left on magnetic tapes promote particular kinds of listener engagement, which intensify his cultural legacy, but also contribute to his problematic historical status. The biographical gaps in the life that produced the recordings tantalize: the recordings give the impression that the experiences behind a voice so suffused in self and body can surely be known, and yet the unknowns remain and the legends are reinterpreted for each new era that consumes and appropriates Vysotskii’s stardom. The sound of Vysotskii’s voice encoded its sorties beyond the pale of official culture into a persona that flirted with all manner of ‘bad living’, and suggested its own inherent self-destruction. Vysotskii. Thank God I’m Alive rejects the overplayed political discourse of magnitizdat and avtorskaia pesnia as dissidence, focusing instead on the interplay of presence and absence that is so fundamental to the sound recording. The film launched itself at aspects of his biography which the genre itself sought: high-risk behavior, inevitable death, the pain of anticipated loss. By showing us Vysotskii destroying himself it performs a familiar generic trick of the biopic: the evocation of uncomfortable proximity and no holds barred access to the downside of fame—as Kulagin says to Nefedov as they stand in the wings when Vysotskii is on stage, ‘he is killing himself there, and we’re over here watching’. As it re-creates and reintegrates Vysotskii’s body and voice, availing itself of his indexical traces, the film is haunted by his absence; it offers the cinema audience a last chance to see Vysotskii live, and ‘live’—but to encounter him one more time we have to watch him die. The audience beyond the spotlight, the microphone and the amplifier, on the other side of the cinema screen, is complicit in destroying the performer, because it is his fated destruction that we consume.

Polly McMichael
University of Nottingham


1] Voloshin cited as inspirations for what he hoped to achieve the physical transformations shown as Brad Pitt’s character ages in reverse in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (Fincher, 2008) and the impersonation of George W. Bush by Josh Brolin in W (Stone, 2008) (‘Igor' Voloshin’ 2010).

2] The prosthetic mask was created by Petr Garshenin, based on hundreds of photographs of Vysotskii. It took six months to construct. Each application reportedly required Bezrukov to spend five hours in make-up. See Said Shakh 2012.

3] The fact that the Russian word for understudy, dubler, also means a voiceover artist or an actor whose voice is used in a role when a film is translated was an irony that contributed to the impression that Bezrukov was being hidden in plain sight.

4] Bezrukov finally ‘confessed’ that he had played Vysotskii on the opening show of Channel One’s late-night entertainment programme Vechernii Urgant/Evening Urgant (16 April 2012), in a one-question interview with the host, Ivan Urgant (his co-star in the film). In fact, it was widely known that Bezrukov had been cast at an early stage and much of the press and internet coverage made it quite obvious that he was still in the role. Only later did he discuss the fact that the voice was not his (Vandenko 2013)

5] The documentary Smert' poeta/Death of a Poet (Manskii, 2005) narrated the last year of Vysotskii’s life through archive film and talking-head interviews, and features no recordings of songs, apparently because Nikita Vysotskii refused to back it (Taroshchina 2011).

6] Izvestiia reported that on the thirtieth anniversary of Vysotskii’s death (25 July 2010), Nikita Vysotskii and his co-producers met a delegation of Vysotskii’s friends and relatives in order to allay any suspicion that the project was based on ‘gossip or hackwork [spekulatsiia ili khaltura]’. The production team opened the meeting by screening a newly-discovered fifteen minute segment of footage taken of Vysotskii’s funeral, setting a tone of reverence (Iusipova 2010).

7] I use the Russian term, the literal translation of which is ‘author’s song’. In Russian, the term used for the author-performer of this genre is ‘bard’. Both Gerald Stanton Smith (1984) and Platonov (2012) use the term coined by Smith, ‘guitar poetry’, as an English equivalent of avtorskaia pesnia. See Platonov 2012: 3-4 and Daughtry 2009: 33n10 for succinct discussion of terminology and generic implications.

8] Rowley (2013: 10-11) mentions the use of Vysotskii’s name in campaigning by Edinaia Rossiia and Iabloko in the run-up to the 2012 presidential elections, with each side claiming Vysotskii as an imagined supporter.

9] The various accounts of those present, on which biographies rely, do not exactly tally with one another. The medical likelihood of the claim that Vysotskii died and returned to life has been disputed, as has the date (the film claims that the death took place on July 25 1979, exactly a year before Vysotskii’s actual death). See, for example, Tsybul'skii 2011.

10] Gossip and legends about Vysotskii during his lifetime are discussed in Gerald Stanton Smith 1984: 150.

11] The four-hour serial treatment of the film makes it clear that he is also hoping to undergo (costly) treatment for his heroin addiction while in Paris.

12] The film’s producers insisted that apart from Vysotskii himself its characters are composites [sobiratel'nye]. In most cases their real-life inspirations are clear, and can be identified as follows: Vsevolod Kulagin = Vsevolod Abdulov, Anatolii Nefedov = Anatolii Fedotov, Tat'iana Ivleva = Oksana Afanas'eva (later Iarmol'nik); Iura (the understudy) = Valerii Zolotukhin. The director of the Taganka, played by Vladimir Men'shov, is not named but is meant to be Iurii Liubimov. Pavel Leonidov, Vysotskii’s uncle, did indeed at one time act as his manager, but at the time of the events described this was Vladimir Gol'dman. The juxtaposition of recognizable actors in semi-fictional roles with the supposedly fully re-created biographical Vysotskii struck some as jarring (Pust' govoriat 2011).

13] The Vysotskii character has been carrying this same strange-looking pen, which has a casing that appears to have been woven from narrow, yellowish plastic tubing, since the film’s early scenes; it appears prominently, for example, when he gives his signature to a document. The four-hour television serial version of the film makes the pen’s origin clear: the casing has indeed been woven from the tubing of a hospital drip by one of Vysotskii’s fellow patients, and thus serves as a reminder of his physical frailty, as well as being one of the many objects on screen that seek to evoke a sense of period authenticity.

14] This moment affords the film its first overt reference to its title, in the utterance of the lyrical subject as his voice, reduced to nothing by pain and weakness [bol’ i bessil’ia], can only whisper ‘“Spasibo, chto zhivoi”’ (Vysotskii 2008 vol. 3: 239). Translating this utterance, and therefore the second half of the film’s title, as ‘“Thank God that I’m alive”’ (or perhaps as ‘“Thanks for my life”’, the literal translation of the title used for the film’s release in Germany: Danke für mein Leben) fixes the relationship it has to the name Vysotskii, which is the first half of the title. In Russian the ‘I’ speaking the phrase in the context of the poem is clear: it is the direct speech of the lyrical subject of the poem. As it appears in the film’s title, however, the connections between grammatical subject, addressee and the adjective zhivoi—‘alive’—are more ambiguous, seemingly asking also to be interpreted as the viewer’s expression of gratitude, to Vysotskii himself for being alive, or to the makers of the film for bringing Vysotskii back to life. The use of the title at the close of the film, before the end credits, plays a further trick, moreover, because initially as the screen goes black the single thing visible is the name ‘Vysotskii’. Bezrukov’s name is then omitted from the roll of leading actors that follows, and only included for the actor playing the character of Iura, Vysotskii’s understudy. This constitutes a final assertion of the presence of a ‘real’ Vysotskii.

15] It is notable that Bezrukov had previously been involved in several historical productions or biopics: he played the role of Stalin’s son Vasilii in the television adaptation of Aksenov’s Moskovskaia Saga/Moscow Saga (Barshevskii, 2004, Channel One), the lead in the television biopic Esenin (Zaitsev, 2005, Channel One) and the role of Pushkin in the feature film Posledniaia duel'/The Last Duel (Bondarchuk, 2006).

16] The insistence on fidelity to past topography was applied more rigorously to Moscow than to Tashkent or Bukhara, however. For reasons of plot, a fictional desert appears between these two cities, and what is supposed to be Bukhara’s Zarafshan Hotel is surrounded by the Unesco Heritage Site of Samarkand. For a detailed assessment of the filmmakers’ work with location shoots, see Darriuss 2012.

17] This accusation was furiously levelled at the filmmakers by Vlady (Kovalenko 2011).

18] Using carbon paper the Vysotskii character forges the signature of A. F. Kornienko, the Taganka’s administrative director. The scenes that follow show him queuing to submit the reference at the Department of Visas and Registrations (OVIR) – the title of the department appears as a caption on screen; he is called out of the queue to a basement room to speak to the KGB colonel, who produces the rest of his application (an application to go abroad [zaiavlenie na vyezd za rubezh]and a handwritten ‘biography’ [biografiia], which he replaces with a re-typed version), before issuing his warning. Scholars have attempted to establish factual detail about Vysotskii’s dealings with Soviet officialdom using archival evidence of exactly this type; see e.g. Rogovoi 1999.

19] According to Jacob Smith, ‘a raspy vocal timbre is created by loose glottal closure, a raised larynx, and relatively less resonance in the cavities of the head. This results in the creation of noise: “breathiness” from excess air passing through the glottis, and “throatiness” from a raised larynx’ (Smith 2008: 134).

20] Jacob Smith uses this term to describe changes in pitch and timbre associated with excessive consumption of cigarettes and alcohol. He attributes Louis Armstrong’s gravelly tones to leukoplakia, growths on the vocal chords that are associated with alcoholism (Smith 2008: 146). It seems highly likely that similar physical factors played a part in Vysotskii’s vocal timbre.

21] Here and elsewhere Vysotskii. Thank God I’m Alive is clearly indebted to Das Leben der Anderen/The Lives of Others (Henckel von Donnersmarck, 2006), which also centres on state surveillance and the technologies that enable it. The scene in which Bekhteev falls asleep while listening to Vysotskii’s incantation of the names of the people he loves and wishes to protect seems directly inspired by a similar scene in The Lives of Others.


Works Cited

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Polly McMichael © 2013

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Updated: 06 Oct 13