Conflict & Justice

Russia's Hipsters on the Big Screen

Hipsters

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Hipsters, a movie produced in Russia a couple of years back, is now getting a theatrical release in the United States.

And it's a musical, an unusual genre for Russian cinema.

Hipsters is set in 1950s Moscow, and it has stark heroes and villains. The villains are grey-suited members of the Komsomol, the communist youth party. And, in the movie, they're angry at one of their members, the movie's hero, Mels.

(Interesting note: Mels was a popular Soviet name, made up of the initials for Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin.)

Mels has gone down the rabbithole: to boogie woogie, sex, and the source of it all: an obsession with all things American.

"It was really dangerous to be different," says director Valery Todorovsky, "to wear different clothes, to hear different music, to behave like different people."

The hipsters wear brightly-colored suits, hip ties and they sport giant pompadours. They gather in secret to dance and make out. Mels himself plays the saxophone, an instrument described by one character as more dangerous than a switchblade.

In making the movie, Valery Todorovsky met with some of the real 1950s hipsters, now 70-years-old or more. One of them told him how he'd dye his pet dog a different color every day.

"One day the dog was green, another day the dog was red or blue, and he used to walk around Moscow center with a very strong message: look, even my dog is different. Not you, you are grey."

Todorovsky put a dog like that in the movie, and the whole thing has a kind of candy-shop feel to it. Michael Idov, the editor of Russian GQ, calls it "a fairly lovely confection".

An 'Ageless Bohemia'

He compares the movie to Baz Luhrmann's Moulin Rouge, a portrait of an 'ageless Bohemia'. The Stilyagi, the hipsters or beatniks, he says, all they wanted to do was to live the way they would if they lived in New York.

"Their style was this insanely misappropriated, misunderstood idea of how people were dressing and behaving in New York," says Idov.

The movie's a great window onto that fantasy land. Indeed a character who actually goes to America comes back and says, you know what, no-one's actually got a pompadour.

But Idov says the movie doesn't really reflect what's happening in Russia today. "The huge difference is that the Stilyagi of the 1950s just wanted to drop out," he says. "They didn't want to take any part in the political life of the time, whereas this is the exact opposite of the people on Bolotnaya [Square] and all these rallies of late."

The Freedom Inside

Last December, thousands of people attended the biggest anti-government rally in Moscow since the fall of the Soviet Union. They were protesting alleged ballot-rigging in parliamentary elections. Another protest is planned for Sunday, in advance of the presidential election.

But Valery Todorovsky argues that his movie, Hipsters, does speak to today's Russia. He says too many Russians are happy to go along with Putin, without really thinking for themselves.

"The problem is the freedom inside," he says. "I know a lot of people in Russia who live here and don't want to understand anything. It's very closed, like they don't want to believe in freedom. They don't want to let themselves be free."

Todorovsky says it's a familiar story, and in making the movie he drew on his own experience: during the 80s he was a kind of Russian hippy.

For the musical numbers in the movie, Todorovsky created new versions of underground songs that were popular during Perestroika. "These songs were about freedom and love," he says.

The movie ends with Mels striding across Moscow, singing proudly, his pompadour stiff in the wind. He's joined by subsequent generations of hipsters, punks, grunge kids, you name it. They sing the refrain 'Go on and play!'

It's a nice, if cheesy, movie moment. And a reminder that, back in the real world, the current wave of protests in Russia are anything but a game.
Hipsters opening dates:

February 24, 2012 Cinema Village, New York City
March 2 & 4, 2012 Fort Worth Museum, Fort Worth, TX
March 16, 2012 Grand Cinema, Tacoma, WA
March 30, 2012 Landmark Theatres, Minneapolis, MN
April 6, 2012 E Street/ Washington, D.C.
April 13, 2012 Kendall Square/Boston, MA

  • poster.jpg

    Film poster for "Stilyagi" ("Hipsters") by Valery Todorovsky (Photo: Valery Todorovsky)
  • HipstersSing2sized.jpg

    Russian "Hipsters" singing! (Photo: Krasnaya Strela Production Co.)

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