Issue 61 (2018)

Kirill Serebrennikov: Summer (Leto, 2018)

reviewed by Rita Safariants © 2018

letoKirill Serebrennikov’s film Summer, which made its international debut at Cannes in May 2018, taking home the prize for best soundtrack, has been the subject of controversy for nearly a year prior to its official release. For much of the film’s editing and post-production process, its director was confined to his Moscow apartment, while his production crew soldiered on. On 22 August 2017, Serebrennikov was detained on charges of fraud and embezzlement of government funds on the Petersburg set of Summer; he was placed under house arrest in Moscow. He was absent from both the foreign and domestic premieres of Summer, and has been the beneficiary of a public outcry on the part of both Western and Russian artistic elites, who continue to demand his immediate release and acquittal from what many believe to be bogus and unsubstantiated allegations (Walker 2017).

Due to Serebrennikov’s highly publicized legal battles and hearings prior to the film’s release, it was unclear to much of the Russian film world whether Summer would indeed reach cinemas in 2018 as planned, echoing the rigid days of the Soviet cinematic past, when the films of auteurs could be shelved for decades or fail to be completed due to government pressure. Instead, despite its director being kept out of public view, Summer debuted as an audience-pleasing effervescent homage to the early 1980s in the USSR, and more notably Leningrad’s legendary underground rock scene, including two of its late stars, Mikhail “Maik” Naumenko of the Leningrad band Zoopark (played by Roma “Zver’” Bilyk, lead singer of the popular Russian band Zveri), and Viktor Tsoi of Kino (played by the Korean-German performer Teo Yoo). Tsoi went on to become the Soviet Union’s most celebrated rock star and a cinematic emblem of perestroika. 

letoShot mostly in nostalgia-inducing black-and-white, the film is a fictionalized rock-musical account of Naumenko and Tsoi’s friendship in the early 80s as remembered by Naumenko’s widow Natal’ia, replete with scenes of a highly stylized and amiable Soviet “reality,” which has been gaining popularity in Russia in the past decade. Its storyline follows a budding friendship between a nineteen-year-old Tsoi and the twenty-six-year-old Naumenko in Brezhnev-era Leningrad, involving musical mentorship, creative collaboration, and an innocuous (and unconsummated) love triangle with Naumenko’s wife Natal’ia, whose initials are prominently featured in one of Zoopark’s most popular songs “My Sweet N” (“Moia Sladkaia N,” with the refrain “where did you spend last night, my Sweet N?” [gde ty provela etu noch’, moia sladkaia N]). Relying heavily on both Western and Soviet rock music of the time to inform his narrative, Serebrennikov creates a late-Soviet period musical that purposefully sacrifices historical accuracy in order to engage with the established mythology of Soviet rock-n-roll, its heroes and environs. Understanding the ultimate futility of presenting a perfectly authentic portrayal of an entire generation’s rock heroes, Serebrennikov chooses the fantastical approach to crafting his narrative, which is perfectly buttressed by the musical genre. Scenes of Tsoi and Naumenko’s first meeting and musical exchange on the shores of the Gulf of Finland, a popular summer destination of city-weary Leningraders; jam sessions in cramped and charmingly shabby communal apartments; and a nerve-wracking debut performance at the KGB-controlled Leningrad Rock Club are interspersed with musical numbers of Western punk and New Wave classics whimsically performed in heavily accented English by passers-by, fellow riders on the train or trolleybus, and the story’s minor composite characters. We see a performance of The Talking Heads’ “Psycho Killer” (1977) on a commuter train, Iggy Pop’s “Passenger” (1977) on a crowded bus, and a mysterious stranger serenades Mike with Lou Reed’s “Perfect Day” (1972) on a rainy summer night. These musical interludes also feature animation and deliberately non-diegetic special effects to signal their fantasticality to the viewer and mold quotidian Soviet reality into a series of fanciful music videos. By doing this, Serebrennikov clearly indicates that Summer’s ultimate goal is not to manipulate historical events or offer an expository narrative on revered national heroes, but rather to work within the confines of the existing mythologies of the late-Soviet past. It is notable that the musical interludes entirely feature Western songs while coexisting with plot-based performances of Kino and Zoopark’s original Russian classics. While occupying differing points in the film’s narrative diegesis, the Russian compositions performed (readily recognizable to the Russian ear as Zoopark’s “My Sweet N,” “Summer” [Leto], “Filth” [Drian’], and Kino’s “Loafer” [Bezdel’nik], “Aluminum Cucumbers” [Aliuminievye ogurtsy], “My Friends” [Moi druz’ia], to name a few) are collected within the highly guarded confines of the Soviet rock underground’s inhabited spaces: communal apartments, the remote and therefore private beaches of Karelia, and the semi-official, yet highly regimented municipal interiors of the rock club. The Western rock compositions, in turn, are almost always performed in public spaces under the Party’s seemingly ubiquitous watch. By keeping Russian rock in the private sphere and pushing its Western predecessor onto the literal street, Serebrennikov makes a resounding statement about the transformative power that the rock music genre wielded in the last decades of the USSR, serving as a harbinger for change that would soon prove fatal to Soviet rule.

letoOne of the remarkable aspects of Summer lies not so much in its content, but rather in the cacophony of its public anticipation and reception. In the months prior to its release, Serebrennikov and his not yet completed project fell prey to unrelenting criticism from some of the most prominent members of the Leningrad rock music community. Boris Grebenshchikov, the lead singer of the popular Leningrad band Aquarium and the person who is most often cited to have discovered Viktor Tsoi’s talent on a commuter train, called the film’s script “a lie from beginning to end” (Sivolobova 2016). Taking issue with Serebrennikov’s depiction of a Soviet apartment concert, which after Maik and Tsoi’s performance evolves into yet another imagined musical interlude, a decadent party and Bacchanalia featuring simulated copulation to the accompaniment of Mott the Hoople’s “All the Young Dudes”, the aging and decidedly prudish rock star claimed that “[Soviet rock musicians] had different motivations. The film depicts Moscow hipsters, who only care about f***ing at other people’s expense” (Grebenshchikov 2018). Andrei Tropillo, another mainstay of the Leningrad rock scene, echoed Grebenshchikov’s sentiments of Summer’s historical inaccuracy. The record producer and founder of the legendary underground recording studio AnTrop, where most of Soviet rock albums were recorded and mixed on decommissioned equipment scavenged from USSR’s Melodia record company, blasted Serebrennikov for gravely misrepresenting the technical capabilities of his studio. After being invited to observe the filming of Summer’s studio recording scene at the Leningrad House of Radio (Dom Radio) in St Petersburg, Tropillo demanded that his name not be used in the film. “In comparison to Soviet times, everything is a hundred times worse [in Serebrennikov’s movie],” he remarked in an attempt to save his recording equipment’s honor; “it is some kind of disgrace…” (Tropillo 2017). Aleksei Rybin, Tsoi’s original band mate and founding member of Kino, who in the film is portrayed as Viktor’s sidekick Lenia, followed suit in rejecting Serebrennikov’s project and refusing to allow his name to be used in the plotline (Anon. 2018). In a personal interview (9 June 2018) Gena Zaitsev, the first president of the Leningrad Rock Club, vowed to boycott seeing the film “to save [his] nerves,” after seeing Tropillo and Grebenshchikov’s statements.

letoHaving been made aware of the rock community’s critical reception prior to the completion of the film, Serebrennikov chose to go on the offensive. Summer is positioned as a provocation to the staunch policing of historical authenticity surrounding the mythology of late Soviet underground rock music. Serebrennikov even creates a separate character for this purpose: The Skeptic, who periodically appears after each of the musical numbers in the film to assure the viewer that “none of this ever happened, regardless of how much we would have liked it to.” When Teo Yoo, who was cast to portray Tsoi, first appears in the film, the Skeptic, who is played by Aleksandr Kuznetsov and may indeed have been styled after the so-called “Moscow hipster,” invoked by Grebenshchikov, screws up his face and scoffs: “doesn’t look like him!” With all due credit to Serebrennikov and his production crew for physically recreating the Brezhnev-era Leningrad rock scene, its interiors, and inhabitants, Yoo’s casting choice is indeed a departure from the uncanny physical resemblances that most of the major characters have to their historical predecessors. Roman Bilyk, with a shaggy wig and aviator glasses, makes for a highly convincing Maik Naumenko, surely inspired by the images of Leningrad rock photographer Natalia Borisova-Hall, whose body of work offers tremendous documentary value. The character Bob, played by thespian heir Nikita Efremov, portraying the early days of the recently disgruntled Boris Grebenshchikov, is also instantaneously recognizable, styled after the sepia-tinted shots in Aleksei Uchitel’s documentary Rock (1988). It is therefore curious that Serebrennikov chose Yoo, a Korean-German actor who does not speak Russian, in spite of his cursory resemblance to Tsoi, and placed him on a cinematic conveyer belt of Soviet rock underground carbon copies. The choice was most likely motivated by the need to underscore the film’s underlying message of creative freedom—signaling to the viewer that the project should not be read from the perspective of the staunch documentarian, but rather a whimsical myth-maker. The Skeptic is therefore a brilliant solution to the rift between Serebrennikov’s imagination and the aging rock secretariat set on defending historical “truth,” in that it anticipates and to a large extent resolves any qualms with regard to the film’s attempts at verisimilitude. Similar to the way Soviet officialdom is portrayed in the film, the Skeptic is presented as the ultimate regulator of creative desire in Summer. In an early scene of an apartment band practice session, the Skeptic accosts the musicians with demands for a more intentional philosophical and ideological approach to their art, which results in him being shot. “None of this ever happened,” he refrains after the scene. 

letoAfter Summer’s official Russian release, however, the veterans of the Leningrad rock community began to gradually warm up to Serebrennikov's final product. Vladimir Rekshan, frontman of one of Leningrad’s first rock bands Sankt Peterburg and curator of The Museum of Russian Rock [Muzei Realii Russkogo Roka] in St Petersburg, referred to the film on his Facebook page as “a good, atmospheric, almost British movie, about some kind of life they led over there. It was called Summer.” The Soviet Union’s leading rock critic, Artem Troitsky, who is also portrayed in the film and worked as its consultant, warned overzealous critics to wait for the final product to make their judgments, and after following his own advice referred to the film as “a musical…along the same lines as [Damien Chazelle’s 2016 film] La La Land, only based on the materials of Petersburg’s rock-n-roll undergroundof the early 1980s… it has great songs, performance numbers, romance, everything is very touching, there is love, and it is all wonderful,” (Troitskii 2018), encouraging viewers to enjoy the film as an entertaining period romance without expecting a heavy historical and/or political drama.

The temptation to politicize the film, however, was another prominent feature in Summer’s critical reception. Western sources call the film “a slick anti-Putin rock-musical,” (Erlich 2018) capitalizing on the controversy surrounding Serebrennikov’s arrest, despite the fact that the film makes only cursory allusions to the political realities of Brezhnev’s Russia. While Summer certainly engages the themes of how freedom of expression and individual agency can be manipulated by ideological prescription, the notoriously outspoken Serebrennikov is rather tame and almost empathetic in his treatment of Soviet officialdom, despite having much material to work with to make a stronger political statement. If they were alive today, both Tsoi and Naumenko would be in the same age range as Russia’s current ruling class—prime minister Dmitrii Medvedev notably hails from the same working-class Leningrad neighborhood of Kupchino as Viktor Tsoi and has publically characterized himself as a rock music fan (Slavskaia 2013). Summer, therefore, is in part positioned to tell the story of the establishment’s youth. One of the most striking historical omissions in Serebrennikov’s narrative is the complete absence of KGB operatives in the scenes involving the Leningrad Rock Club, which was founded by the municipal authorities in part to oversee and control the rapidly growing phenomenon of Soviet rock music. For the duration of its existence (1981-1990), the club was assigned rotating KGB “curators,” who were responsible for monitoring the venue’s activities and keeping tabs on its personnel and musicians. Most of these operatives were young people, who were often rock music fans themselves, and seeing as Russia’s president Vladimir Putin began his KGB career in Leningrad during the Brezhnev era, it would not be a stretch to imagine that some of his close associates may have fulfilled this role. In light of Serebrennikov’s own frustrations with Russian authorities, Summer’s portrayal of municipal organs controlling the Leningrad rock community was strikingly benevolent and decidedly non-confrontational. The two composite characters appearing in the film who make up the official component of the rock club equation, the unnamed middle-aged woman who vets Kino’s song lyrics in the cafeteria and a Party representative donning a comb-over and an ill-fitting suit during Zoopark and Kino’s performances, serve a largely comical role in Serebrennikov’s film. During one fantastical scene, where Maik Naumenko transitions from an acoustic performance to full-on electric rock-out session at the club, the venue director and her frumpy guest for a moment lose their inhibitions and join the crowd in its wild glee. The only anti-authoritarian message that Serebrennikov might be making in his film is highlighting the ultimate humanizing force that rock music exerts over all people across generational boundaries and socio-political strata. 

letoSummer’s ultimate triumph, however, is in forging a wide-reaching cinematic conversation that could potentially revitalize the late-Soviet rock film genre. Perhaps the strongest argument that Serebrennikov makes in favor of reading his film in terms of myth-making rather than fact-checking can be found in the painstaking allusions that Summer makes to its cinematic predecessors. The film can easily be described as a virtual mosaic of late-Soviet rock films featuring Tsoi and Naumenko. As mentioned earlier, many of the scenes spotlighting performances and interactions between the Soviet Union’s most recognizable rock legends can be traced to the documentaries made about the Leningrad rock communities in the late 1980s. Aleksei Uchitel’’s Rock (Rok,1988) is a steady staple in Serebrennikov’s visual narrative. In fashioning the landscape of Leningrad’s rock-n-roll underground, Serebrennikov borrows heavily from Uchitel’’s stark black-and-white contrast shots of concert footage as well as from the mise-en-scene of the interiors of Soviet communal apartments, where much of the founding discourse surrounding the cultural significance of Russia’s underground rock music had largely taken place. The scene of Maik’s visit to Bob’s apartment to discuss helping Viktor record his first album is composed of a series of graphic matches from Uchitel’’s documentary footage. Joanna Stingray’s candid-camera documentary Sunny Days (Solnechnye Dni, 1996) informs much of the beach scenes as well as some backstage shots featuring Tsoi. But it is the Soviet rock blockbusters ASSA (dir. Sergei Solov’ev, 1987) and The Needle (Igla, dir. Rashid Nugmanov, 1988) that provide many of the inter-textual markers that cement Summer as an homage to Viktor Tsoi’s cinematic legacy. The playful aesthetic of Nugmanov’s The Needle informs much of the musical numbers in Serebrennikov’s film in their use of animation. The shot of Teo Yoo framed against the backdrop of a commuter train window is plucked entirely from The Needle’s camerawork, as are Viktor’s attempts to channel Bruce Lee’s martial arts choreography that appear during the closing sequence of Nugmanov’s film. Yet more prominently, it is the cameo by Aleksandr Bashirov, who appeared in both films in adversarial roles to Tsoi’s victorious voice of change in ASSA and to heroic Moro in The Needle, that provides the crux of Summer’s thematic preoccupations. In Serebrennikov’s narrative, Bashirov personifies the mindlessness of the Brezhnev era’s ossified ideology in the form of a feeble, yet angry old man on a train, who is threatened by the young generation’s newfound freedom in the form of rock music. The rock films on which Summer is modeled actually helped rock music enter the Soviet mainstream and make its stars household names. At times a rock-music film was even able to thwart a musician’s potential incarceration, as was the case with ASSA and its actor Sergei “Afrika” Bugaev, who just barely escaped a sentence for unemployment after Solov’ev officially hired him to star in his film. Summer’s plotline spans roughly the same time-period as Solov’ev’s ASSA, yet the films’ production histories could not be more dissimilar. It is bitterly ironic that while during perestroika the cinematic establishment was quite literally saving amateur rock musicians from possible imprisonment, the roles seem so dramatically reversed in 21st-century Russia. With Serebrennikov still under house arrest while his film completes its theater run and the festival circuit, one can only hope that the verve and optimism that defined the Soviet rock film can once again help shift the tide away from authoritarianism toward openness to artistic expression.

Rita Safariants
St. Olaf College

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Works Cited

Anon. 2018. “Soosnovatel’ Kino prokommentiroval stsenarii fil’ma Serebrennikova o Tsoe.” RIA Novosti. 19 February.

Erlich, David. 2018. “Leto Review: Putin’s Least Favorite Filmmaker Delivers a Spirited Requiem for the Leningrad Rock Scene – Cannes 2018.” IndieWire. 10 May.

Grebenshchikov, Boris. 2018. Channel Rossiia 24. 16 February.

Sivolobova, Elena. 2016. “Boris Grebenshchikov: S Tsoem my poznakomilis’ v elektrichke.” VN.RU (8 August).

Slavskaia, Mila. 2013. “5 rok-grupp, kotorye slushaet Dmitrii Medvedev.” Vecherniaia Moskva. 13 September.

Troitskii, Artemii. 2018. “O fil’me “Leto” i Leningradskom rok-klube.” ARU TV. 24 June

Tropillo, Andrei. 2017. “Kirill Serebrennikov. Fil’m Leto. Viktor Tsoi. Mnenie Andreia Tropillo. YouTube [Post: TheUnamusic]. 15 September.

Walker, Shaun. 2017. “Arrest of Russian theatre director raises fears of clampdown on dissent.” The Guardian (22 August).

Summer, Russia, 2018.
Color, 126 minutes
Director: Kirill Serebrennikov
Script: Mikhail Idov, Lili Idova, Ivan Kapitonov, Kirill Serebrennikov
Cinematography: Vladislav Opel’iants
Production Design: Andrei Ponkratov
Costumes: Tat’iana Dolmatovskaia
Music: Roman Bilyk, German Osipov
Cast: Teo Yoo (voice Denis Kliaver, vocals Iurii Pogodaev), Irina Starshenbaum, Roman Bilyk (Zver’), Fillip Avdeev, Iuliia Aug, Aleksandr Gorchilin, Aleksandr Bashirov, Elena Koreneva
Producers: Ilya Stewart, Pavel Burya, Georgy Chumburidze, Mikhail Finogenov, Murad Osmann, Iurii Kozyrev
Production: Hype Film, KinoVista, Charades

Kirill Serebrennikov: Summer (Leto, 2018)

reviewed by Rita Safariants © 2018

Updated: 2018