Color, 125 minutes
Russian with English subtitles
Director: Valerii Todorovskii
Screenplay: Iurii Korotkov and Valerii Todorovskii
Cinematography: Roman Vas'ianov
Art Director: Vladimir Gudilin
Music: Konstantin Meladze
Costumes: Aleksandr Osipov
Choreography: Oleg Glushkov and Leonid Timtsunik
Cast: Anton Shagin, Oksana Akin'shina, Evgeniia Brik, Maksim Matveev, Ekaterina Vilkova, Igor' Voinarovskii, Sergei Garmash, Irina Rozanova, Oleg Iankovskii, Leonid Iarmol'nik
Producers: Leonid Lebedev, Leonid Iarmol'nik, Vadim Goriainov, Valerii Todorovskii
Production: Krasnaia Strela Film Company, Rossiia TV Channel Russia
Valerii Todorovskii’s Hipsters is among many recent Russian films that explore and revise Soviet history before the collapse of the Soviet Union. The film is set in Moscow in the 1950s, and is interested in topics that were either forbidden or avoided in Soviet society during Stalinist and post-Stalinist years. These topics include interest in American culture and music, obsession with fashion and appearance, anti-conformism, sex, jazz, and the saxophone. Even though the events take place during the regime of Nikita Khrushchev, Hipsters recycles and revises some Stalinist tropes and themes. For the first time in years, the genre of musical film, popular in the mid 1930s through the late 1940s, returns to Russian screens. Todorovskii’s film has many characteristic features of a musical, such as characters singing and dancing on different occasions, and the use of a restaurant’s stage and a dance floor for performing musical numbers. Todorovskii, however, resists having his film called a musical, and refers to it as a film-celebration (fil'm-prazdnik) or a “music” film (muzykal'nyi fil'm).
Hipsters can be also defined as a musical drama, in which the attitude of Soviet citizens toward young hipsters is reminiscent of the ostracism of so-called “enemies of the people,” or of those in opposition or disagreement with the dominant ideology during Stalin’s era. Todorovskii hyperbolizes the otherness of young hipsters by dressing them up in extremely bright clothes and contrasting them to the gray colors of the rest of Soviet society. Hipsters not only represent an alternative to totalitarian culture, but they are also associated with something foreign, usually American. The characters of Todorovskii’s films use their own language, appropriating English words in their speech. They refer to the main avenue, the place where they meet everyday, as “Broadway,” and sincerely believe that the values and traditions to which they adhere belong to American culture.
Hipsters follows the story of a “converted” hipster, Mels. In the beginning of the film, Mels is a good student, a successful sportsman, and an active Komsomol member. Even Mels’s name, indicative of his “true” communist nature, is formed from the first letters of four important communist figures—Marks, Engels, Lenin, and Stalin. Together with his dedicated party line comrades, Mels chases hipsters and punishes them for their otherness by cutting off their stylish hair and ripping their nice, bright dresses, pants, and ties. After one of the regular raids on hipsters, Mels meets a girl, Polina, or Pol'za (“profit, use”), and the story transforms into a Bildungsroman, or a story of maturation. He changes his hair style and clothes, drops the last letter of his name, so it would sound more foreign (Mel), learns about jazz, swing, and blues, masters playing a saxophone, and gets a sexual education by reading the prohibited Kama Sutra.
Pol'za’s unexpected impregnation by a black visitor from America challenges Mels and Pol'za relations. Similar to Grigorii Aleksandrov’s Circus (1936), Todorovskii addresses the question of an interracial child and the ability of Soviet citizens to accept it despite his visual difference. The acceptance of Pol'za’s black child both by young hipsters and the older generation of Mels’ relatives and neighbors finally unite two different cultures.
In Hipsters, Todorovskii is able to show different realities of Soviet society. Both Mels and Pol'za come from single-parent families, and their living conditions are very modest. At the same time, two other hipsters—Fred and Bob—come from families of the Soviet intelligentsia. Their apartments are full of nice furniture, books, and art works. On “Broadway” these social differences are erased, and all hipsters look similarly happy, cheerful, and festive.
Music is used as a uniting force for young people from different backgrounds, as a solution for young parents to make their living, and it also becomes a reason to be punished by the state. The music by George Gershwin and Charlie Parker, along with popular Russian rock songs of the late Soviet period, creates a very light and cheerful atmosphere, justifying Todorovskii’s own genre definition of his film. The soundtrack includes songs by such popular bands of the 1980s as Nautilus Pompilius, Mashina Vremeni, ChaiF, Bravo, and Kino, with some of the lyrics re-written to fit the narrative line of the film. The use of out-of-historical-context music gives away the imaginary status of the history narrated in Hipsters, and together with the final scene, in which the main characters are joined by contemporary young Muscovites from different subcultures—punks, hippies, hip-hoppers, and reggae lovers—suggests that the issues raised in this film are universal and atemporal. It is difficult to call Hipsters an authentic film about the Soviet 1950s. It combines and intertwines four different epochs: the Stalinist era, Khrushchev’s Thaw, Perestroika of the 1980s, and contemporary Russia. What unites these four periods is the desire of young people on the screen to have their own unique culture, to have an opportunity to express their own thoughts and feelings instead of following their parents’ rules or party orders.
The film received numerous awards in different categories at the Nika Festival and the Golden Eagle Festival in Russia, the White Elephant awards from the Russian Gild of Film Scholars and Film Critics, the award for best narrative film at the 2009 Middle East International Film Festival in Abu Dhabi, and the Audience Choice Award at the 2009 Anchorage International Film Festival in Alaska.
Valerii Todorovskii (1962- ):
The son of a prominent Russian film director, Petr Todorovskii, he was born in Odessa, Ukraine. He studied screenwriting in the master class of Kira Paramonova and Isai Kuznetsov at the State Institute for Filmmaking (VGIK), from which he graduated in 1984. Since then he has worked as a director, screenwriter, and producer. Since 2003, he has been an advisor to the director general of film projects at the TV channel Rossiia.