Loosely based on the real-life story of musicians Viktor Tsoi and Mike Naumenko, Leto chronicles the rise of underground rock pioneers in early-1980s Leningrad, when a bunch of kids were challenging Soviet cultural traditions by openly looking to the West for inspiration. With Perestroika already in the air, Viktor, Mike, Natacha, and their friends paved the way for change with a complicated form of worship for Lou Reed, Bob Dylan, Iggy Pop and everything else they could get their hands on.
It’s a lively, irreverent, rambling and deeply romantic account of the era, but less of a political statement than it’s being made out to be, presumably as a byproduct of director Kirill Serebrennikov’s recent arrest and prolonged detention (on dubious charges) in Russia. Outspoken but never an overtly political filmmaker, he draws elements from all his previous films and similarly uses the Soviet historical context as just one of many igniters for a highly enjoyable mix of drama, biopic and visual experimentation.
“I wonder if jeans would suit me”, says Natacha, the most grounded (but also the most aware and artistically perceptive) member of the group, and her earnest wish for this Western institution neatly sums up two hours of arguing between her boyfriend Mike, quiet newcomer Viktor and the rest of their friends. Shouting in each other’s faces about everything from delivery style to lyrical content and the overall purpose of rock music, they have an array of icons in front of them to try on for size, presumably knowing on some level that none of them is quite going to fit.
This friction, however, is what creates the best type of energy, both for the development of their actual music and for the film itself, which is invigorated by three big musical set-pieces scored to Talking Heads’ Psycho Killer, Lou Reed’s Perfect Day and Iggy Pop’s The Passenger, complete with dance numbers and period-appropriate animated and graphical enhancements.
It’s fun, electric stuff, and a pleasing complement to the rich warmth of DP Vladislav Opelyants’ (who also shot Hostages, the 2017 impressive Georgian drama with many similarities to Leto) widescreen monochrome compositions. It also offers diminishing returns after the explosive novelty of the Psycho Killer segment (quite cartoonishly sparked by the complaints of a train passenger who berates the young music enthusiasts for daring to do something different with their lives than “building a family and planting a tree”). It unfairly obscures the quietest parts of the film which are rooted in a surprisingly tender and melancholically understated love triangle.
Nestled between the cozily peeled-off walls of the apartment where Natacha and Mike live, raise a young son and – impressively – host social gatherings for Leningrad’s up-and-coming music scene, this is some of Serebrennikov’s best work, refining Izmena’s asphyxiating domestic pathos and merging it with Playing the Victim’s subversiveness. Natacha’s growing attraction for Viktor – and Mike’s affecting facilitation of both their relationship and of Viktor’s artistic success – are sweetly portrayed under the ethos that “holding hands is the most dangerous thing of all”, and Leto makes a point of giving that the attention it deserves even while letting its louder elements take center stage.
An unlikely yet poignant comparison here is another recent drama about artistic pursuit in Leningrad: Aleksei German Jr.’s Dovlatov, a portrait of the Russian poet as he pushed against the ceiling of cultural legitimacy and political circumstances. A decade later and a generation younger, the struggle is still on for the musicians of Leto (who in their endless postmodern quest for the perfect band name entertain at some point the possibility of being ‘Poets with drums’), though it’s projected forward rather than backward. Dovlatov tormented himself with the legacy of the strongest literary movement in modern European history, the ghosts of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy following him around a city clouded in smoke and disappointment. For Serebrennikov, who has never been as in sync with German Jr.’s cinema as he is here, the soon-to-be-transformed Leningrad is instead a plastic environment to disrupt one theater at a time, preferably coming in from a back window and getting out riding a wave of transfixed triumph. Mike and Viktor still spend as much time debating their art as they do creating it, but their ghosts come from the future, which means there’s at least a chance to try and catch them. The fact that none of Dovlatov, Mike and Viktor (or, indeed, Leningrad itself) survived past 1991 only makes that chance more tragically compelling to watch.