By Dennis Hartley
(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 3, 2011)
If the psychic energies of the average mass of people watching a football game or a musical comedy could be diverted into the rational channels of a freedom movement, they would be invincible. –Wilhelm Reich
Free your mind and your ass will follow. –George Clinton
Here are two things generally not mentioned in the same breath: “Colorful musical romp” and “Khrushchev-era Soviet Union”. But I have to say it…Hipsters is a colorful musical romp set against a backdrop of the Khrushchev-era Soviet Union. Lightly allegorical and doggedly retro, Valeriy Todorovski’s film is a mashup of Absolute Beginners and Pleasantville, with echoes of West Side Story, Grease and The Wall.
It’s 1955, and life is a bit on the gray side for 20-something Muscovites, especially within the ranks of the Young Communist League, whose idea of a good time is ruining everyone else’s. This is how we meet League member/star athlete Mels (Anton Shagin) and his (sort of) girlfriend Katya (Evgeniya Brik), who is the commissar of his particular auxiliary.
Lovely but priggish Katya is leading a patrol of saturnine League members, who are on the hunt for stilyagi (“hipsters”) who might be having a night out (god forbid) enjoying themselves. Their quarry will not be tough to spot; with their pompadours and peacock threads, they stand out from the drab, state-mandated conformity that surrounds them. Katya and her gang soon detect the telltale sound of forbidden American jazz, zeroing them in on their prey. Armed with scissors, they proceed to unceremoniously cut up their coiffed hair and flashy clothing.
It turns out that Mels may be conflicted; while giving chase to several hipsters, he is stopped in his tracks after he is smitten by one of them (Oksana Akinshina), a fetching blonde named Polza (you half expect Mels to break into “Maria”). Maybe this whole stilyagi scene ain’t so bad after all, he figures, and lets Polza go with a promise that he won’t narc her out. The free-spirited Polza reciprocates with an implication that if he gets hip, he might get lucky.
Well, you know how easy guys are. Cue the inevitable montage, wherein Mels enlists one of the hipster dudes to give him all the requisite grooming, fashion and dancing tips. His transformation complete, Mels sets off to win Polza’s heart. It’s a wafer-thin plot, but I can’t think of too many genre entries that allow obstacles like narrative to get in the way of the song and dance (at 125 minutes, there’s plenty of both).
If you love the song and dance, you’re sure to get a kick out of the energetic performances, over-the-top set pieces and eye-popping costumes. I found the song lyrics to be nonsensical at times; perhaps something literally got lost in the translation. Although the overall tone is fluffy, Todorovski saves room for political commentary (lines like “a saxophone is considered a concealed weapon” may elicit chuckles, but hold ominous undercurrents). I sense the film has deeper subtext in this regard (more attuned to, let’s say, Russian audiences?). Still, its prevalent theme, exalting self-expression and righteous defiance in the face of oppression whenever possible, is hard to miss. And, in light of the OWS movement (and our own ongoing culture wars) it’s a timely one as well.