Issue 50 (2015) : Special Feature KiKu-50

Valerii Todorovskii: Hipsters (Stiliagi, 2008)

reviewed by Rimgaila Salys© 2015

Wear Those Green Socks!

Valerii Todorovskii’s film Hipsters has been influential in three areas of Russian cinematic culture: genre revival in the film industry; the arguments about the Soviet past, and the viability of a social message with contemporary reverberations. Set in 1955-56, in the slippery time loosely framed by the death of Stalin and Khrushchev’s secret speech at the Twentieth Party Congress, the film deals with a cult of jazz-loving dandies who imitate what they suppose to be an American phenomenon, and are persecuted by the Komsomol and the KGB. The Komsomol member Mels (named for Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin) transforms into Mel and marries Polina or Polly, a stiliaga girl. Polly gives birth to a mulatto baby and becomes an ordinary Soviet mother, straining the relationship, but Mel and Polly are reunited in a traditional ending for the musical, as Hipsters extends its message of inclusivity from the couple to the outside world of a fantasy present. Typologically the film is a variant of the show musical: the hero becomes a stiliaga-singer and sax player, and his transformation, the making of a star, parallels the making of the couple.

To date, Hipsters is the only post-Soviet musical film—a bold attempt to return a mainstream genre to cinematic mass culture. In a landscape dominated by patriotic blockbusters and simplistic comedies featuring media personalities, Todorovskii put forth his musical as a third way. And, as an art house director, he made a conscious choice: “Every director must, at least once in his life, make a film accessible to everyone without exception” (Todorovskii in Levchenko 2008). As a visual and auditory “surface phenomenon” (colorful clothes, jazz song and dance music), the stiliagi were, in fact, perfect subjects for a musical film.  

For obvious reasons, during the Soviet era (and after), Film Institute VGIK, from which Todorovskii graduated in 1984, did not train students to make commercial films. However Todorovskii, known as a director of psychological dramas, had admired the Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, and Gene Kelly musicals from his student days. Together with his “Krasnaia Strela” company, co-producers Leonid Lebedev, Vadim Goriainov, Leonid Iarmol’nik (another fan of musicals), and with financial help from Mikhail Prokhorov, Todorovskii decided to risk a big-budget musical production. Even so, he had to make Vice (Tiski, 2007) in order to keep his cast employed during the peripetias of the financing process.

Todorovskii soon discovered that the practice of musical film had been completely lost in Russia: “… no one knows how it should be made. It broke off, in my view, back in the time of Mikhail Grigor’ev and Grigorii Aleksandrov. […] The absence of a tradition means that everything has to be invented from scratch.”[1] It proved impossible to compose original songs for Hipsters because there are no modern-day Isaak Dunaevskiis or Pokrass Brothers. Instead, Todorovskii had composer Konstantin Meladze rearrange rock classics of the seventies and eighties (not terribly familiar to young audiences), with a partial set of new, film-appropriate lyrics by Ol’ga Tsipeniuk. Todorovskii justified this less-than-ideal solution by pointing out that 1980s rockers demanded individual freedom and social change even more insistently than the non-political stiliagi. They were essentially the children of the stiliagi generation and similarly formed a counterculture (Anon. 2008).[2]

The choreographers, Oleg Glushkov and Leonid Tintsunik, had never worked in film; neither had the dancers, and both were unused to the boundaries of the film frame and shifting perspectives. After six months of rehearsals, half the dancers left the project and new performers had to be found. The director himself felt unsure when faced with filming a large crowd scene: “When, for the first time in my life, I saw on the set a crowd of one thousand, dressed in fifties-style costumes, and then remembered that in parallel the computer guys were drawing in old Moscow, I was scared. I’m a responsible person and think that, when you spend a lot of money, you need to answer for it. Earlier I had only read about Hollywood directors who felt themselves much more inhibited with hundred million dollar budgets than with modest films. The less money, the more freedom” (Todorovskii in Anon. 2011).

stiliagi But in the end Todorovskii successfully staged a world cinema genre grounded in a localized, national subject.[3] Hipsters is a true musical in which performance dominates and sound trumps image—no matter how vividly colored the latter, in the manner of a more eccentric Vincente Minelli. Songs drive the narrative or comment on events, and do not function as inserted musical interludes. “Bound Together by One Chain” (Skovannye odnoi tsep’iu) sings the story of Mel’s censure by the Komsomol. “Song of an Old Jazzman” (Pesnia starogo dzhazmena) tells a side story about the musician who sold Mel his first saxophone. “Man and Cat” (Chelovek i koshka) reflects on the kommunalka life being shown onscreen. “My Little Baby” (Moia malen’kaia beiba) explains Fred’s place among the stiliagi before we know much about him. “American Wife” (Amerikanskaia zhena) comments on the consequences of Fred’s choice of wife. Together with the dance numbers, songs like “Man and Cat” and “Bound Together by One Chain” gave the film the energy, high spirits, and humor that made it attractive to Russian audiences.

The adapted songs and lyrics of Hipsters were, in fact, constructed ingeniously using three strategies. In the simplest cases, such as “Man and Cat” and “I’m What’s Needed” (Ia to, chto nado), the tempos were altered and the original lyrics left unchanged, but adapted to a different context. For example, the lyrics of “Man and Cat” (Fedor Chistiakov and the group Nol’) actually refer to a user waiting for his drug dealer to arrive, while in Stiliagi the song-and-dance number comments ironically on life in a kommunalka and Mels’s father’s family history. A second group of adaptations uses the original melody, adds completely new lyrics (as relevant to the film), but mediates meaning between the old and new versions.[4] Consequently in the film the ideological “Bound Together by One Chain” resonates with the protest against conformism of the Nautilus Pompilius original.[5] “Eighth-Grade Girl” (Vos’miklassnitsa), which voices the love scene in Hipsters, completely replaces the lyrics of the Viktor Tsoi original, yet the latter is similarly affectionately sexual, especially in Tsoi’s rendition. Furthermore the Hipsters version inserts the word “Eighth-Grade Girl” at the very end of the song about Mel and Polina’s love—not fully logical, but a baring of the device. In the third strategy the lyrics of a song are partially altered to correspond to the filmic narrative, but in each case a striking refrain is preserved. “My Little Baby” and “Let Everything Be as You Desire” (Pust’ vse budet tak, kak ty zakhochesh’) are examples. In “Go on, Play on” (Shaliai-valiai) the original lyrics are preserved, as is the refrain, but one new stanza is added to sum up the stiliaga experience: “You know, it’s not all bad after all,/ This style overcomes fear./ This wonderful, wicked, funny era/ Hasn’t ground you and me into dust./ Let’s remember these faces and the record’s sharp edge,/ And may love keep us safe. Go on, play on.”[6]  

Todorovskii explained that, although the historical stiliagi were all about music, clothing and sex, as a musical, the film was more a “fantasy on our fifties” rather than realistic depiction (Anon. 2008). “Hipsters doesn’t recreate the past at all. I chose the fifties because there was a very sharp confrontation at that time. They simply didn’t have time to get to the question of who feels or thinks what. Everything began from how someone looks” (Todorovskii in Levchenko 2008). Nevertheless, Hipsters provoked heated discussions about this colorful chapter of the Soviet past. Kinoteatr.ru maintains online comments on the film that typify the range of viewer reactions.[7] These were divided between a focus on historical truth vs. the view that the film could only be evaluated as a musical, i.e. within the context of its genre. In the first category viewers either saw the depiction of the era and the stiliagi as largely accurate, pointing to Andrei Tarkovsky and Vasilii Aksenov’s stiliaga phases and describing pressures to conform or, just as often, as exaggerated regarding lack of freedom of expression and a slander on the country.[8] Although Hipsters has no pretensions to documentary verisimilitude, both the 2008 musical (a western genre) and the stiliagi era it constructs share the same oppositional turning toward the West in the face of the 1950’s Cold War mentality and the rise of the imperial Putin regime.  

stiliagi It is not at all surprising that in Hipsters Todorovskii quotes Grigorii Aleksandrov’s Circus (Tsirk, 1936) as the iconic Soviet urban show musical. Using a different timeframe referencing the fate of mixed-race “festival children,” conceived during the 1957 Moscow International Youth Festival, Todorovskii readdresses the message of Circus, making a plea for individual and lifestyle—and not only racial—tolerance in post-Soviet society in the final unifying spectacle of Hipsters.[9] At the same time he quotes several motifs from Circus in the film—and not all of them approvingly. Outside the maternity home ordinary Russian people (Mel’s father and friends) welcome the mulatto baby, modeled on little Jimmy of Circus, as “ours.” Unlike the more privileged urban party members and Komsomol students, Mel’s father, a first generation worker from the countryside, wrily accepts his son’s transformation as a normal rite of passage, thereby reconciling the peasantry with the stiliagi as if over the heads of urban zhloby (conformist squares): “I like it. In the village we also dressed up [nariazhalis’] to scare the girls.” However, later there is a quotation of Circus’slullaby episode, as the baby is passed around among grotesquely fawning stiliagi friends, until Polly angrily takes him away. By implication, the parodic episode, along with the mother’s reaction, rejects the sentimental falseness of the Circus lullaby. Handing a startled baby around a crowd of admirers may afford the latter gratification, or in the case of Circus, some politically kitsch emotions, but, implies Todorovskii, the benefit is to the state, not the baby.

Earlier, at a secret stiliaga party, Mel and the pregnant Polly are attacked by Komsomol raiders. As they run to escape, they come face to face with a caged lion, a quick nod to Skameikin’s duel with the trained lions of Circus. However, Todorovskii reverses the outcome of the episode from improbable comedic victory to a more bitter reality: Skameikin successfully fends off the lions with a bouquet of roses, while Mel is unable to save Polly from a punitive haircut.

In spite of its explicitly stated message of tolerance, Circus projects an underlying racist discourse in narrative, dialogue, and imagery (Salys 2009: 158-59). Although Marion Dixon’s affair with a black man occurs outside the Circus narrative and is not explicitly disparaged, the ideological message of the film is nonetheless that Marion’s hypersexuality, as demonstrated by her desire for a black man, has been channeled into a proper and legitimate union with Martynov, the Stalinist New Man, who is white. In Hipsters the conception of Polly’s child with a black man is framed very differently, as she explains to Mel:

—His name was Michael.
—One of ours?
—No, he was an American. He was walking along Sadovaia, trying to stop someone to find out where he was, and people kept running away from him.
—Did you love him?
—No, it was something completely different. Imagine, a person flew in from another planet only for a few hours. And there’s so much to ask about them and so much to tell about us. But the minutes keep ticking away, and soon he must return to his rocket. And we both know that we’ll never see each other again.

Polly understands her meeting with the black American as an encounter with a visitor from another planet, as completely outside conventional moral boundaries, a supremely unique event, and therefore almost as a blessing.

Both films end with large crowd scenes. In Circus the disciplined, singing marchers move through Red Square, and Marion Dixon draws Raechka’s attention to the unseen leader atop the mausoleum. In Hipsters a random crowd of punks, rastafarians, goths, emos, among others—some of the subcultures being attacked in Russia today, as were the stiliagi in the fifties—strolls along Tverskaia, along with twenty-somethings in jeans and even an occasional office worker, in the direction of the Kremlin, visible in the distance, singing the easygoing, carefree “Go on, Play on.” Todorovskii thus concludes Hipsters with a pointedly inverted filmic quotation of Circus, including a reversal of Dunaevskii’s “Song of the Motherland” (Pesnia o rodine) in march tempo.

But Hipsters turns on two endings—one more realistically mundane, the other a fictional apotheosis. The first is a dramatic epilogue that brings the optimism of the musical down to earth, foregrounds the coming of age motif introduced by the two fathers, and acknowledges difference as mutable. Stiliaga princess-turned-housewife Polly scolds Mel for the very saxophone playing that first brought her to him, and Fred explains to Mel that there are no stiliagi in the US. The stiliagi have dispersed—drafted into the army, arrested, forced to leave Moscow, turned to establishment careers and conventional social roles. Only Mel remains unchanged as a necessary bridge to the second finale on contemporary Tverskaia, the “up” ending of classic musicals. When this genre projects a concluding temporal shift, it also proposes a larger, symbolic message. In joining the stiliagi with contemporary subcultures in a fantasy present, the film validates and celebrates difference as essential to human freedom.

Outside the paradigm of the genre, it is possible to read the second ending, with its happy mix of non-conformist groups moving in the direction of the Kremlin, as an unwitting affirmation of greater tolerance under the current regime—possibly a reason for Channel One and NTV’s enthusiastic advertising of the film. However, in 2008 Todorovskii was clearly taking aim at monolithic tendencies in Russian society: “… in general young people today, on the contrary, try to merge into one mass. They’re sick of being different, now they want to be similar again. And what happens when all are similar? All sorts of Nashi and the like” (Todorovskii in Levchenko 2008); “… this is our eternal theme: walk in formation with identical badges—or against everyone and in green socks” (Todorovskii in Anon. 2008). 


Notes

1] Valerii Todorovskii in Anon. 2011; Isakova 2009; Beumers 2011. Mikhail Grigor’ev (Mikhail Gutgarts, 1925-1979) worked as a theatre director beginning in 1950, but became a television director of musical films and comedies in 1956.

2] Moulin Rouge (Baz Luhrmann, 2001) also reworks several decades of popular songs.

3] Ticket sales in Russia totaled $16 million (almost 3 million viewers); the film’s production budget was $15 million (Kinoteatr.ru). To attract more viewers, Hipsters was marketed as a “fil’m-prazdnik” (holiday film), suitable for New Year’s entertainment. The film won a NIKA, a Golden Eagle award, and a White Elephant from the Guild of Film Scholars and Film Critics, as well as awards at other festivals.

4] For a list of the original songs recast for the film, see the soundtrack section of Russian Wikipedia for the film.

5] Commentators have noted the formal influence of Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick in the Wall” from the film The Wall (Alan Parker, 1982), although in the latter the schoolchildren detest their condition, while the Komsomol members of Hipsters ostensibly enjoy their collectivity.

6] “Ty znaesh’, ved’ vse neplokho,/ Etot stil’ pobezhdaet strakh./ Eta divnaia, zlaia, smeshnaia epokha/ Nas s toboiu ne sterla v prakh./ Davai zapomnim eti litsa i u plastinki ostryi krai,/ I pust’ khranit nas liubov’./ Shaliai-valiai.”

7] As of 3 September 2015 there were 799 comments on the site.

8] My favorite comment is No. 451: “I managed to be in time to catch the stiliagi. I didn’t like them much, there was too much épatage. […] But I remembered one stiliaga shirt my entire life—a bright green one with little pictures, a sax on the back. From the keys hung rope swings and on the swings were half-dressed girls—that made an impression! The dude (chuvak) was walking past the Central Committee of the Ukrainian Communist Party, which was also pretty provocative”.

9] Iurii Korotkov, author of the screenplay, underscored the right to individual freedom of expression as the message of the film: “This isn’t a film about the stiliagi or the music; it’s a film about the possibility of being free in conditions of non-freedom.” (Russian Wikipedia). In the film the stiliagi come from all classes, from the children of the diplomatic elite (Fred) and the nomenklatura (Polly) to the offspring of professionals (Bob) and workers (Mel, Dryn). The need for individual self-expression thus crosses all class boundaries.

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Works Cited

Anon. 2008. “Valerii Todorovskii o ‘Stiliagakh’, den’gakh, sekse i kinokritike,” Laboratoriia Fantastika 4 December.

Anon. 2011. “Stiliagi (fil’m, 2008)—Istoriia sozdaniia,” Teatr [4461.ru], 12 July. [search on Yandex for Стиляги (фильм, 2008) - История создания]

Beumers, Birgit. 2011. “Hipsters,” in Directory of World Cinema. Russia, edited by Birgit Beumers, pp. 143-45. Bristol and Chicago: Intellect.

Isakova, Volha. 2009. “Review of Hipsters (Stiliagi, 2008),” KinoKultura 25.

Levchenko, Ian. 2008. “Valerii Todorovskii: “Nuzhna smelost’ nadet’ zelenye noski!,” Interview. Sobesednik 23 December.

Salys, Rimgaila. 2009. The Musical Comedy Films of Grigorii Aleksandrov: Laughing Matters. Bristol and Chicago:Intellect.

“Stiliagi. Fil’m (2008)”, Russian Wikipedia


Hipsters, Russia 2008
Color, 120 minutes
Director: Valerii Todorovskii
Script: Iurii Korotkov and Valerii Todorovskii
Cinematography: Roman Vas'ianov
Producers: Leonid Lebedev, Leonid Iarmol'nik, Vadim Goriainov, Valerii Todorovskii and Television Channel Russia.
Production: Red Arrow [Krasnaia Strela], Television Channel Rossiia
Cast: Anton Shagin, Oksana Akin'shina, Evgeniia Brik, Maksim Matveev, Ekaterina Vilkova, Igor' Voinarovskii, Sergei Garmash, Irina Rozanova, Oleg Iankovskii, Leonid Iarmol'nik, Aleksei Gorbunov.
Art director: Vladimir Gudilin
Music: Konstantin Meladze
Costumes: Aleksandr Osipov
Choreography: Oleg Glushkov and Leonid Timtsunik
Reworked lyrics: Olga Tsipeniuk
Original songs: Viacheslav Butusov and Nautilus Pompilius, Fedor Chistiakov and Nol', Andrei Makarevich and Mashina Vremeni, Mike Naumenko and Zoopark, Nataliia Pivovarova and Kolibri, Vladimir Shakhrin and ChaiF, Valerii Siutkin and Bravo, Viktor Tsoi and Kino, Garik Sukachev and Brigada S.

Valerii Todorovskii: Hipsters (Stiliagi, 2008)

reviewed by Rimgaila Salys© 2015

Updated: 08 Oct 15