Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Love: Hipsters

According to Hipsters director Valeiry Todorovskiy, musicals aren't so big in Russia. In fact, it might be safe to say that his film is the first real successful attempt. Hipsters deals with the Stilyagi, young people who defied Soviet communist rule in the 1950's by adopting an idealized American style. They peacock in pompadours and brightly colored mismatched threads against a sea of drab greys, getting Charlie Parker albums on the black market and having raucous parties where the liquor flows and so does the free love. The film was a solid hit in its home country (where its title is Stilyagi) last year, and has been making the rounds at international film festivals this year, hoping to be picked up for North American distribution.
The film follows Mels (Anton Shagin), a university student whose life is a series of communist activities. His idea of an eventful evening is assisting in raiding hipster parties, catching dissidents while repressed leader Katya (Evgeniya Khirivskaya) cuts at their fancy duds with a pair of scissors. Then he meets the lovely Polina (Oksana Akinshina), a pretty young thing who outsmarts him and introduces him to the charms of freewheeling and fetishized Americana. Soon, Mels is 'Mel', he's learning the saxophone, partying on 'Broadway' with 'Polly', 'Fred', 'Bob' and the gang, taking dance lessons and shaking off bystanders who claim he's a traitor.

Hipsters is at heart a feel good movie that triumphs individualism. In this respect, it's a crowd pleaser and sure to strike a cord with American audiences. It's vibrant, endearing, consistently upbeat, and beautifully filmed all while casting a critical glance at Russia's relatively recent political past. Todorovskiy is making a profound statement in casting these misfits as heroes. In fact, following the movie's presentation at the Chicago International Film Festival he suggested that within Russia the population is still holding itself back. The people don't want to be free, they suffer from a certain amount of self-oppression. In effect, the Stilyagi still have much to teach Russia about dancing to its own rhythm. It's a rather beautiful thought, and seemed to resonate with an audience primarily of excited Russian ex-pats, including a 75-year old woman who congratulated Todorovskiy on an accurate presentation of her own girlhood.

Yet, I'm not so sure the film will resonate with a general English-speaking audience. Its spirit is infectious, this much is true. And there's no doubt it's cinematographically sparkling and the musical numbers are fun to watch...but I couldn't shake the feeling that something was getting lost in translation. The plot is a little uneven, failing to give certain characters a fair amount of characterization while hinting at the back story of others. Several plot lines don't feel effectively wrapped up by the films conclusion. Without revealing any spoilers, there's a hopeful song sequence at the end that's tainted by a handful of unfortunate events and the revealing of unexpected information. Plus, admittedly, there's always something about reading subtitled forced rhymes while listening to a song that can't quite reconcile itself in my mind. Yet...Hipsters is fun. Jumpy, yes, but fun. It's likable. And sometimes likability outweighs a little bit of logic. It feels like the most saccharine elements of Cry-Baby met the underdog gravitas of Slumdog Millionaire and had a little Soviet lovechild. Here's hoping that one day, you'll get to see more than the un-subtitled snippets on Youtube. By the way: here's my favorite song from the flick:

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