Issue 72 (2021)

Aleksei Uchitel’: Tsoy (2020)

reviewed by Rita Safariants © 2021

tsoyAleksei Uchitel’’s latest film Tsoy (2020) aims to fictionally reconstruct the immediate aftermath of Viktor Tsoi’s death in a tragic car accident. Tsoi was the leader of the Leningrad band Kino, and remains Russia’s ultimate rock icon. The controversial film, which drew the public ire of Tsoi’s immediate family as well as his bandmates and close collaborators, is a picaresque account of the journey Tsoi’s casket takes from the site of the fatal car crash in rural Latvia to its final resting place in Leningrad. The chronology of events occurs almost exactly a year before the August coup of 1991, which led to the collapse of the USSR. The film, which can hardly be called a biopic due to its posthumous narrative timeline, was released three months after the 30th anniversary of the musician’s death and arrives on the heels of yet another recent Tsoi film—Kirill Serebrennikov’s festival hit Summer (Leto, 2018), marking a resurgence in Tsoi’s cultural significance in contemporary Russia. 

Similarly to Summer, Tsoy has been the subject of intense criticism from its inception. Aleksandr Tsoi, the son of the late rock star, who is portrayed in the film as a young child, sent a personal letter to Russia’s president Vladimir Putin, in which he requested that the film be officially banned, citing defamatory content (Anon. 2020). During a Q&A session at the virtually held Russian Film Week USA festival in New York on 23 January 2021, Uchitel’ defended his film from naysayers, calling upon the audience to see Tsoy as a cultural document and parable. The director stressed that the film was envisioned as a story not simply about Tsoi, but rather a film about love and fate—in Russian the word rok can refer to both destiny and the musical genre—and about losing a cultural symbol. Moreover, Uchitel’ was upfront about his difference of opinion with Tsoi’s family and friends, yet maintained that his work is an authentic artistic representation of events from the perspective of an outsider. He added that he respects the opinions of the living subjects of his film, but also suggested that their evaluation of the final product might be clouded by subjective emotional bias. Uchitel’, of course, is no stranger to cinematic controversy and seemingly welcomes it into the orbit of his projects for promotional value. His 2017 film Matilda, which tells the story of Tsar Nicholas II’s love affair with ballerina Mathilda Kschessinska in the years preceding his ascent to the throne, was considered blasphemous by Russia’s social conservatives, who called for its ban.

tsoyRather than reinforcing Viktor Tsoi’s cultural and cinematic legacy with his film, Uchitel’’s ultimate goal seems to be to do the same for himself. Tsoy’s thematic and narrative structure is for the most part constructed to bring recognition to its director’s influential role in the history of the Soviet rock underground as its devoted documentarian. Uchitel’ made two Soviet-era films about Soviet rock music: the 1987 barrier-shattering documentary “Rock” (Rok), in which he explored the music and daily lives of some of Leningrad’s most revered rock musicians and The Last Hero (Poslednii geroi, 1990), which chronicles the events surrounding Tsoi’s death. At Russian Film Week in 2021, Uchitel’ told the backstory of Rock, from which he borrows extensively in Tsoy, insisting that while he was not part of the insider circle of the Leningrad rock music community, he nevertheless had unique access to its characters and personalities in daily life. The director described negotiating the filming process with Tsoi and his bandmates. Kino invited the film crew to spend a twenty-four-hour period at “Kamchatka,” the famous Leningrad boiler room, where Tsoi worked as a stoker and the band’s underground concerts often took place. Kino stipulated that the decision to take part in Rock would be dependent on the quality of interaction between the filmmakers and the performers. Seeing as the final cut of Rock featured Tsoi’s performances and interview footage as a central narrative line, one can only assume that the relationships formed were sufficiently positive. Uchitel’’s second documentary The Last Hero includes footage of the rock star’s funeral, which documented the largescale outpouring of grief from the singer’s massive fanbase. Tsoi’s late widow, Marianna Tsoi, worked as an administrator for the film, which allowed Uchitel’ to further ingratiate himself into the rock community and witness the private lives of his characters at close range. Uchitel’ also maintained to have seen the actual driver of the Ikarus bus that suffered the fatal collision with Tsoi’s Moskvich, allowing for ample material to make his fictionalized account of the first days following the rock star’s death.

tsoyTsoy opens with perhaps its most compelling sequence: the car crash. Viktor Tsoi’s small Moskvich sedan suffers a head-on collision with an empty Ikarus bus on a curvy country road, killing the rock star on impact and leaving the driver of the bus, Pavel Shelest (Evgenii Tsyganov), dumbfounded and in shock. In a dramatic retelling of the urban legend that the demo tape, which eventually became Kino’s posthumous “Black Album” (Chernyi Al’bom) was found in Tsoi’s mangled Moskvich after the accident, Uchitel’ effectively blames the cassette, titled “47” in the film, for the fatal crash. In the opening scene, Tsoi inserts it into his tape deck, causing him to distractedly swerve, rapidly overcorrect at a curve in the road, leading to the accident. When Shelest (Russian for “rustle”), an unpretentious working-class bus driver, discovers that the crash has killed the famous rock star, he ejects the demo tape from the cassette player and places it in his pocket, beginning the ensuing drama, in which he figures as its central character and unequivocal moral compass. We soon learn that the first investigator on the scene, Ilsa Jass (Inga Tropa), is Pavel’s romantic partner, who is wary of the possibility of a prison term, due to Shelest’s prior road accidents. Due to the high-profile nature of the case, a Russian investigator arrives to rural Latvia and after suspecting foul play and signaling his mistrust in the work of Latvian authorities, improbably suggests that Shelest deliver Tsoi’s body to Leningrad. Thus begins Tsoy’s 600-kilometer posthumous journey, styled as a tediously slow-paced road movie, marked by a series of misadventures of a socially and interpersonally mismatched cast of characters.

Russian rock critic Artemii Troitskii (2020) called the film “a betrayal of Tsoi’s memory both in life and in death,” teeming with “deceitful” and “offensive” caricatures of the singer’s inner circle. And indeed, it is a fair observation that the majority of the characters in the film function as social caricatures, collectively representing an exclusive subculture, far removed from the everyday lives of Soviet citizens, a dynamic Uchitel’ sharply critiques with his film. The bus carrying Tsoi’s body effectively shields the rock subculture from late-Soviet reality, with its everyman driver, Pavel, acting as their unlikely protector, in spite of the fact that he is also directly responsible for Viktor Tsoi’s death. Despite the convoluted metaphors, the road movie trope allows Uchitel’ to further encapsulate his characters and their interpersonal dramas, which are played out for the most part inside a moving vehicle, mimicking, of course, the ultimate symbolic enclosure of Tsoi’s coffin.

tsoyThe passengers on the bus are Tsoi’s widow Marina, (Mar’iana Spivak), her son, Zhenia (Maria Peresil’d), Marina’s romantic partner, Rick (Il’ia Del’), Vika (Nadezhda Kaleganova), a rock photographer and friend of Tsoi, Tsoi’s current partner, Polina (Paulina Andreeva), as well as Iurii Raizen (Igor’ Vernik), Kino’s producer, who follows Shelest in an accompanying Mercedes-Benz. As Troitskii mentions in his scathing review (2020), Uchitel’ does little to disguise his protagonists from actual individuals. And although every personality other than Tsoi’s common-law wife Natal’ia Razlogova and son Aleksandr have passed away, their cultural legacies are still in active formation. Uchitel’ presents Tsoi’s widow, Marianna Tsoi (Marina in the film), from whom the singer had separated three years prior to his death, as a sternly protective and overbearing matriarch, who is unwilling to relinquish control of her late husband. During Tsoi’s beginnings on the Soviet underground rock stage, Marianna served as the band’s de facto manager, promoter, makeup artist and costume specialist, and later became the primary gatekeeper of Tsoi’s legacy. Uchitel’’s casting choice of Mar’iana Spivak, who is most famous for playing a neglectful and emotionally abusive mother in Andrei Zviagintsev’s Loveless (Neliubov’, 2017), further problematizes Marianna’s image.

tsoyThe character of Polina, based on Tsoi’s romantic partner, journalist and film critic, Natal’ia Razlogova, is cast as an aloof representative of late-Soviet intelligentsia, who is visibly uncomfortable in her position as a deceased rock star’s girlfriend. Uchitel’ capitalizes on the decidedly gendered reading of Tsoi’s family drama, by not only exploring the clichéd animosities between the two women, but also socially stratifying them and underscoring the class divisions endemic to late-Soviet society. Arguably the least nuanced character sketch in Tsoy is that of Aleksandr “Rikoshet” Aksenov, Marianna’s common-law husband and lead singer of the Leningrad punk band Object of Ridicule (Ob”ekt Nasmeshek), who is portrayed in the film as an unhinged alcoholic, for whom Marianna once again serves as a scolding maternal presence. Despite framing Tsoy as a commentary on Viktor Tsoi’s posthumous legacy, Uchitel’’s treatment of Aksenov is striking in its utter dismissal of his position as an influential rock artist in his own right. At the time of his death, Tsoi had been recognized as both a music and film star, having appeared in the massively popular films ASSA (Sergei Solov’ev, 1987) and The Needle (Igla, dir. Rashid Nugmanov, 1988), and been named “actor of the year” by the Soviet film journal Sovetskii Ekran (Erokhin 1990). And, it was Rikoshet, who attempted to preserve Tsoi’s cinematic legacy by taking his place in Nugmanov’s rock-music-infused “Eastern” The Wild East (Dikii vostok, 1993), which was written specifically for the late star. Although Uchitel does hint in his film that the fathering role for Tsoi’s five-year old son (played by Uchitel’’s daughter Maria) will effectively fall to Aksenov, it is Shelest, the proletarian slayer of Tsoi, who serves as the single positive role model.

The ultimate villain of Uchitel’’s film is Kino’s producer Iurii Aizenshpis (Iurii Raizen in the film). An ex-con, who served 18 years in prison for foreign currency crimes under the Soviet regime, Aizenshpis became one of the most successful music producers and promoters during the Soviet and early post-Soviet periods, known for his work with Kino and, more recently, the Russian pop icon Dima Bilan. Working with the late-Soviet stereotype of the spekuliant profiteer, Uchitel’ portrays Raizen as motivated solely by financial gain, using Tsoi’s final journey as an excuse for his relentless search of the missing demo tape. To underscore his moral failings, Uchitel’ spatially separates Raizen from the rest of the group. Driving in a new black Mercedes, a stark symbolic contrast to Shelest’s Ikarus and Tsoi’s unassuming Moskvich, Aizenshpis’ elite economic status as the manager of the USSR’s most popular rock band is directly linked to his emotional callousness to the magnitude of the human capital lost in Tsoi’s death.

tsoyApart from the heartbreaking naiveté of Zhenia, who sings his father’s songs as he grapples with his loss, the only other sympathetic member of the Leningrad rock elite is Vika, the photographer. Strikingly, she is the only member of Tsoi’s funeral caravan who displays genuine emotion at the news of Tsoi’s death. Apart from a single tear rolling down Polina’s face, all other protagonists remain emotively stoic. Moreover, Uchitel’ engineers a budding romantic connection between Shelest and Vika, while underscoring their parallel narrative positions in his film.  As a way to get Pavel off the hook with the Russian authorities, the Latvian investigators suspect Vika of tampering with the brakes on Tsoi’s Moskvich prior to the crash.  With Pavel as the factual, and Vika as the imagined killer of Tsoi, both characters are effectively the earliest progenitors of the rock star’s posthumous cultural legacy. Vika’s character is, of course, also a metaphorical stand-in for Uchitel’’s directorial gaze as she photographically documents the most memorable points of Tsoi’s final journey. Meanwhile, Pavel, personifying the public, is her late-Soviet working-class protector – he saves her from drowning and picks up her lost rolls of film – enacting the collection (and passive consumption) of the detritus of both a disintegrating subculture, and the Soviet experiment as a whole, both of which are to be subsumed by commercial interests.

The primary narrative tension of the film is Shelest’s passengers’ gradual realization that their driver is directly responsible for Tsoi’s death. The first to solve this riddle is Raizen, followed by Marianna, and eventually everyone else. Despite this sharp change in group dynamics, Shelest’s moral superiority remains immutable, and he emerges as the primary protective force for Tsoi and his music, which, he masterfully hid in the visor flap above his steering wheel. As the funeral procession’s moral compass, he even admonishes the rock star’s family: “You can’t even bury him properly!” Shelest says to the group after Marianna throws Rikoshet’s bottle of liquor at the windshield. And despite the perpetual mechanical precarity of Pavel’s bus, which at one point overheats, gets driven into deep water, and becomes accosted by a swarm of angry Kino fans, Tsoi’s body, encased in a blue satin casket, is kept in a state of venerable stasis, protected by the common man in its final journey. The fact that Shelest, who while unwilling, is nevertheless the one directly responsible for the rock icon’s death, is idealized to such an extent in Uchitel’’s film, is imbued with resounding symbolic implications. “If he would have worn a seat belt, he’d be alive”, says the medical examiner at the scene of the accident while examining Tsoi’s car, shifting the ultimate responsibility to the deceased.

The film outlines a clear populist stance, which Uchitel’ aims to communicate to his spectator: Tsoy is an anti-elitist parable where a deafening cultural loss is transformed into a collectivized national commodity and the factual killer effectively becomes the hero, while Tsoi’s coffined corpse is preserved and protected, like those of the earliest Soviet leaders. Scenes of angry mobs of Kino fans vandalizing Pavel’s house are intercut with Vika attempting to disrupt a provincial wedding celebration, by demanding the town DJ play Tsoi’s music. When thwarted, she begins to inaudibly mouth the words to Tsoi’s transformative rock anthem “We want change!” (Peremen!).

tsoyThroughout the film, Shelest is repeatedly unable to “hear” Tsoi’s music, despite personifying the moral center of the film and shielding the singer’s posthumous existence. When he finally pops the hidden “47” cassette into his tape deck, only jumbled sounds of an irreparably damaged recording are heard. Other than the performance footage from Rock and Zhenia’s singing, there is no Kino music in the film, most likely due to Tsoi family’s unwillingness to give permission. Still, this glaring sonic absence reads as a comment that Tsoi’s death marked a sudden loss of the singer’s creative control and subsequent alienation from his music as a cultural product, the fate of which is still unknown. In a self-referential move, Uchitel’ suggests that cinema may offer a solution to the legacy tug-of-war that often afflicts cultural icons. In one key scene, Isa Jass watches Rock in a movie theatre with her police boss, while the final scenes of Tsoy reference the closing sequences of Solov’ev’s ASSA and Nugmanov’s The Needle. In doing so, Uchitel’ creates a facsimile of Tsoi’s cinematic coronation, and inscribes himself as a significant voice in its establishment.

Despite ideologically taking the public’s side, the film largely seems to neglect the needs of its multigenerational audience with its slow pace, flat characterization, and lack of musical appeal, while eschewing any meaningful exploration of Viktor Tsoi’s persona and cultural impact. Instead, Tsoy comes across as more of a validatory personal project for a filmmaker who yearns to be recognized as a Soviet rock-film auteur. With the resurgence of Tsoi’s cultural clout 30-years after his death, which is most recently exemplified by both Belarusian and Russian political protests appropriating Tsoi’s “Changes!” as a call-to-arms against Putin and Lukashenko’s authoritarian rule, Uchitel’’s film is as opportunistic as it is aspirational. And while it succeeded in attracting initial curiosity from Russian rock fans, as well as stirring controversy among the rock community’s survivors, it’s ultimate legacy will quickly sink to the bottom of the pandemic-weary informational bog, not unlike Shelest’s doomed Ikarus.  

Rita Safariants
University of Rochester

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Works Cited

Anon. 2020. “Syn Tsoia pokazal pis’mo Putinu s pros’boi zapretit’ fil’m Uchitelia.” Lenta.Ru. 1 September.

Erokhin, Aleksei. 1990. “Avtoportret Neizvestnogo.” Sovetskii Ekran 8.

Troitskii, Artemii. 2020 “Iots.” Ekho Moskvy. 19 November. 

Tsoy, Russia, Latvia, Lithuania, 2020.
Color, 98 minutes.
Director: Aleksei Uchitel
Scriptwriters: Aleksandr Gonorovskii, Savva Minaev, Aleksei Uchitel
Cinematographer: Iurii Klimenko
Music: Fedor Zhuravlev
Cast: Evgenii Tsyganov, Mar’iana Spivak, Paulina Andreeva, Il’ia Del’, Igor’ Vernik, Maria Peresil’d, Nadezhda Kaleganova, Inga Tropa
Producers: Aleksei Uchitel, Kira Saksaganskaia, Gints Grube

Aleksei Uchitel’: Tsoy (2020)

reviewed by Rita Safariants © 2021

Updated: 2021