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The bonding power of musicianship is explored, fondly and knowingly, in this immersive ode to Leningrad’s 1980s rock scene, centred on the friendly rivalry – in love and music – of two real-life artists, Viktor Tsoi (German Korean Teo Yoo) and Mike Naumenko (Russian rocker Roma Zver). Naumenko is partying on the beach with his band and band family when Tsoi and his partner wander up, introduce themselves and perform. Their plaintive, incantatory acoustic duo is a party-stopper. In the Star is Born moment, the seasoned muso and his devoted, eminently sane wife (Irina Starshenbaum) take the gifted younger man under their wings, like it or not.
In splendid black-and-white, the film manoeuvres us through low-key jam sessions, obsessive talk about western musicians, and performances at the state-sanctioned Leningrad Rock Club. Just as monitors ensure audiences sit still and listen quietly, the bands must clear their lyrics with Party officials, a thing they manage with an adroit mix of bullshit and charm.
Director Kirill Serebrennikov peppers the action with visions of freedom his protagonists may have felt but did not live to experience. A card reading ‘This Never Happened’ is flashed before us. Suddenly the Rock Club audience actually rocks. An altercation with sour old geezers on a train bursts into a driving rendition of Talking Heads’ ‘Psycho Killer’, decorated with manic scratch graphics.
Serebrennikov is currently under house arrest on charges of embezzlement from the Moscow theatre company he directs. Yeah, right. The exploration of freedom under restraint conjured in his deeply affectionate portrait of the artist is complicated, timely and moving.
“Ironically, more than any other film I saw at Cannes, this felt the most like the work of a free man.” — Bilge Ebiri, Village Voice