Issue 37 (2012)

Petr Buslov: Vysotsky. Thank God I’m Alive (Vysotskii. Spasibo, chto zhivoi, 2011)

reviewed by Vladimir Martynov © 2012

Vysotsky. Thank God it’s Not a Serial …

vysotskyPetr Buslov’s film, based on Nikita Vysotsky’s screenplay “Vysotsky. Thank God I’m Alive,” triggered enormous hype. Russian viewers, long unaccustomed to seeing domestically produced films, surged to the movie theaters. After watching the film, many were wiping away tears, deeply touched. Now, after the hype ebbed away, it is time to figure out: what is it exactly that touched the viewers? The talented directing? The deep, original screenplay? A lead performance that you cannot tear your eyes from?

Unfortunately, nothing of the kind exists in this film. The people who came to see a film about a person close to their hearts—and Vysotsky up to this day, thirty something years after his death, remains close to the hearts of an immense number of people—were already inclined to have a positive emotional response even before seeing it. Subconsciously, the majority of them simply went “to see Vysotsky.” In this respect, the filmmakers had it brilliantly calculated, and it worked flawlessly. They deserve honor and glory for the mere fact that viewers rushed to movie theaters to see a Russian film. But alas, that is where the fanfare ends.

vysotskyHonestly, I really wanted to like this film, and wished there was something for which I could praise it. However, there are only the performances of three actors that deserve to be mentioned. Everything else in Vysotsky either raises questions or, even worse, does not raise any questions at all. Why does this film about a legendary person and a cultural icon have to focus on a short episode in Vysotsky’s his life, a concert in Uzbekistan, where the sick, drug-addled Vysotsky was not able to perform? Why was this particular episode singled out from his impressive biography and his turbulent life—both personal and creative—that was full of enough events to fill the lives of ten people? There are television series made about the Civil War Commander Grigorii Kotovskii and the Odessa gangster Mishka Yaponchik, but what is this…? Actually, one could thank the filmmakers that they did not film a serial about Vysotsky instead. If the plot in this feature-length film is so bogged down in one event, it is terrifying to even imagine how many awful, viscous pauses and heavy-handed plots we would have to endure in a serial.

vysotskyClose-ups in Vysotsky (Sergei Bezrukov) look somewhat hideous. The outrageously expensive makeup, used to most precisely bring the actor’s semblance to Vysotsky, seems to fulfill this purpose—at least sometimes (well at least sometimes!). With the right angle and lighting, the resemblance is uncanny. But, unfortunately, more often than not, it seems that the task of the actor playing the main role comes down to keeping the makeup on his face: he walks, trying to end up in the “correct” lighting, so as to look most authentic, occasionally saying something not particularly comprehensible, while trying not to open his mouth, so that the precious mask of makeup—which, according to rumors, has been copied from the death mask of Vladimir Semenovich—does not dribble off his face.

It is known that Vysotsky himself was reluctant to use much makeup, and would only use it in cases of extreme necessity, so long as it did not interfere with the creation of authentic characters on screen and stage. Vysotsky’s extraordinary talent and personality combined with the Taganka theater’s approach allowed him to create authentic roles without makeup. The Taganka’s actors would casually play the roles of Pushkin or Mayakovsky without makeup, but the theater-goer would be convinced that before him actually stood Pushkin, and rather than the actor Leonid Filatov. In the case of this film, Vysotsky’s visage covered in heavy makeup makes it hard not to feel dejected.

vysotskyThe hero was given a voice by his son Nikita, who also wrote the screenplay and for whom the most important thing was to recreate his Dad’s tone of voice and intonation as accurately as possible and he partially succeeds in this task. But, alas, in the case of the acting, as well as in the case of the voice dubbing, all the steam, as the saying goes, went into the whistle. That is to say, after the initial task of replicating the hero’s physical resemblance as accurately as possible, nothing was left to give this character a soul. As the result, instead of a hero, Vysotsky appears almost like a talking doll, or as such a hindered, weary creature that one wishes the film would end sooner, just so that it could get some rest and stop suffering. It is entirely possible that in those moments portrayed in the film, Vysotsky was exactly like that, but why, in the first movie about a national folk hero should he be shown specifically like that?

If there is one character that does not need any additional energy, it is Andrei Panin’s character of Doctor Anatolii Nefedov. His frenzied, over the top temperament suffices for the entire film. Panin’s spirited performance of the doctor’s role results in Nefedov’s portrayal as a fussy scoundrel who on one hand seems to genuinely love his patient and be proud of his closeness, and childish on the other, seemingly eagerly and selfishly exploiting the latter’s fame.

Another noteworthy figure in the film is Andrei Smoliakov, the actor, not the character he plays – KGB Colonel Viktor Mikhailovich Bekhteev. The role itself is rather lacking in substance, and doesn’t leave Smoliakov much to really act. His character is mainly a “reflective character,” his function is to execute the orders of one party, undermine another, blackmail a third one… But Smoliakov, being an actor of immense abilities—strong and charismatic—did much more than the script offered, and brought keen interest to his rather lackluster character.

vysotskyFilmmaker Dmitrii Astrakhan played the role of Leonid Friedman, Vysotsky’s concert-organizer in Uzbekistan, a petty swindler and a KGB informant. Astrakhan’s own films are often structured on one emotional scheme that can be briefly summarized like this: “trembling wretch” on the cusp of a critical situation becomes a hero capable of a courageous feat and self-sacrifice (“that damned Prometheus,” hisses Colonel Bekhteev to Friedman in the film’s finale). Friedman’s role is a sort of “film within a film,” a byproduct of both Astrakhan himself being in a film about Vysotsky and his own evident success as an actor.

Is it possible that the main character of the film does not stand out from his surroundings for the reason that he is not, in fact, the main character? He really appears in this story as a suffering figure, a martyr. This film turned out to be not about Vysotsky, but about how he was persecuted by authorities and sold and betrayed by his “friends.” It just does not feel right to say “thank you” to the filmmakers for showing us Vysotsky “alive”—it is simply hard to call his character truly alive.

In my opinion, the one thing this film really lacks is love. Honest, sincere, unapologetic love for Vysotsky. Yes, such a love in the film is portrayed by Oksana Akin’shina, but the filmmakers, even if they share in this love, successfully hide it away, otherwise they would surely have found other ways of presenting their hero. The viewers leaving the movie theater, wiping away their tears are not quite experiencing what they saw on the screen, but some already experienced and harbored emotions associated with Vysotsky. And to every viewer, those emotions are unique.

Translated by Alexander Rindisbacher

Vladimir Martynov

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Vysotsky. Thank God I’m Alive (Russia, 2011)
2011, Russia, 128 minutes, colour
Director Petr Buslov
Scriptwriter Nikita Vysotsky
Director of Photography Igor’ Griniakin
Production Design Anna Lazareva
Costume Design Ekaterina Shapkaits
Music Ruslan Muratov
Sound Vladimir Litrovnik
Editing Il’ia Lebedev
Cast: Sergei Bezrukov, Oksana Akin’shina, Andrei Smoliakov, Maksim Leonidov, Andrei Panin, Vladimir Il’in, Ivan Urgant, Dmitrii Astrakhan, Sergei Shakurov, Alla Pokrovskaia, Anna Ardova, Shukhrat Igrashev
Producers Anatoli Maximov, Konstantin Ernst, Nikita Vysotsky, Nikolai Popov, Michael Schlicht, Paul Het
Production Direktsiia Kino
Distribution WDSSR

Petr Buslov: Vysotsky. Thank God I’m Alive (Vysotskii. Spasibo, chto zhivoi, 2011)

reviewed by Vladimir Martynov © 2012

Updated: 04 Jul 12