This review/interview is by our guest writer, Redmond Bacon.
Leto (Summertime) is a combination of the traditional rock biopic and arthouse film; an auteuristic tale of love, optimism, melancholy, and loss told against the backdrop of a rapidly developing musical scene. It’s as if Almost Famous met Walking The Streets of Moscow. Set in the early ’80s, the star of the show is Viktor Tsoi (played by Teo Yoo), who would later become Russia’s most iconic rock star. Dying at the young age of 30 in a car crash in 1990, he carries in Russia the same kind of counter-cultural weight as Kurt Cobain does in America.
Roman Bilyk plays his mentor Mike Naumenko, the lead singer of the less famous Zoopark, while Irina Starshenbaum plays Mike’s wife Natasha. Based upon the memoirs of the real Natasha Naumenko, Leto is a story characterised by its naivety, optimism, and the very real belief that, for one brief moment, music could change the world. This message of rebellion comes at a time in Russia in which many artists feel their artistic freedoms imposed upon. This is especially true in the case of the director of Leto himself.
Kirill Serebrennikov didn’t make it to Cannes, where Leto played in Competition. Russia’s most acclaimed contemporary theatre director is currently under house arrest for charges of embezzlement. He is claimed to have pocketed up to 133 million roubles of money granted to him by the state while running the avant-garde Gogol Theatre in Moscow. Serebrennikov denies all charges against him, telling the court in February 21st of this year that: “I am without a doubt innocent and right. And I hope for a wise and just decision.” Known for a long history of dissent, including the support of LGBT rights and speaking out against the detainment of Pussy Riot, critics have accused the arrest of being politically motivated.
The shooting of his latest film, Leto, was impacted by his sudden arrest on August 22nd, 2017. As Roman Bilyk says, “It was totally unexpected.” The crew had said goodbye to each other the previous day, planning on meeting the following morning. But, as Bilyk says, talking in Russian through a translator, “When we finally met in the morning, the producers came in and announced he was taken to Moscow.” They stayed for three days in St Petersburg, contemplating what to do next. Communication came in dribs and drabs, with all information being relayed through a lawyer. They still haven’t been able to talk to him properly, with anything they do or say carrying the possibility of implicating Serebrennikov further.
Thankfully, Serebrennikov’s theatre habits saved the production of the movie. “Kirill is the greatest theatre director. He loves rehearsal,” Irina Starshenbaum says. Bilyk explains that “This is how and why we were able to continue without him as we had already rehearsed all the scenes.” Teo Yoo concurs, stating that “We only had a week left of shooting, and we were fine-tuned enough on to each other to know how to work together and create the final scenes.” Then, after proving that his laptop was not connected to the internet, Serebrennikov was allowed to finish editing the film from his flat.
Despite all this political pressure, Leto is an undoubted artistic triumph. Shot in black-and-white, it clearly evokes the spirit of the era, using long and luxurious takes to immerse us into its characters. Every now and then, it even turns into a musical, with its main characters and members of the public treating us to fantastical versions of “Psycho Killer,” “The Passenger” and “A Perfect Day”. The potential for crossover into Western markets is strong, and the film has already been sold across most of the EU, as well as countries such as Colombia, Brazil, China, Taiwan, and Japan.
The film has an artistic unity and integrity that is even more remarkable once you consider how different the three main stars are. Teo Yoo is a working actor who doesn’t speak Russian, Starshenbaum made her name through the big-budget sci-fi film Attraction, and Roman Bilyk, a non-actor, is the lead singer of the immensely famous pop group Zveri. It’s a testament to Serebrennikov’s skill as a director that he was able to bring this disparate trio together into one coherent love triangle. All three actors talked about how Serebrennikov had faith in their suitability for the role when they themselves believed they weren’t the right fit.
Teo Yoo is bracingly honest about his career up to this point. “I have been a working actor ever since 2002, and I’ve never been famous anywhere,” he says. “So it wasn’t up to me to make a choice because I have to make a living. Everything you see on IMDB is nothing I did by choice. I had to pay my rent. I was lucky they were interesting projects.”
With Leto, he landed what is arguably his most interesting project yet, the chance to portray one of the most iconic figures in recent Russian history. He was called by a friend if he knew any Koreans who could portray Tsoi. He looked around dutifully without being able to “conceive the idea that [he] could play that guy” himself. He was eventually convinced to send in a picture and was later asked to audition in Moscow.
Yoo believes that, because he was born and raised in Germany, a predominately white environment, he had a similar feeling of melancholy and “cultural identity displacement” to Viktor Tsoi. Upon hearing of this feeling, Kirill immediately realised he had the right actor for the job. This was already six months into production, so Yoo, who doesn’t speak Russian, was only given three weeks to learn the script. Alone in Russia, this new and strange setting, Yoo says, “Gave me the isolation needed from my everyday life to focus on what I needed to focus on.” With two and a half years of training at the Lee Strasberg institute in New York under his belt, Yoo used the method approach rather effectively to get into the mind of his character.
This approach couldn’t be further from that of Roman Bilyk. Kirill approached Bilyk because he was a musician first and an actor second. Bilyk was very hesitant: “I said no at first. I was afraid. I’m a very responsible person and the idea of doing something that I wasn’t sure I would be good at was inconceivable.”
Kirill told him that he needn’t be worried. He was told that because “I’m not an actor I shouldn’t be worried about the way I act.” The only preparation he needed to make, he says in a voice half-serious, half-joking, was to grow his hair for eight months. This proved difficult for his fans. “I had still to do my own concerts. I tried to do something with that horrifying hair of mine. I had a baseball cap.” Yet in his words, Kirill “managed to create this sort of atmosphere where we would help each other and support each other. It’s something that doesn’t really exist anywhere else in the Russian film industry. Everyone believed in what they were doing, and that’s how we got such a good film.”
This belief also extends to the casting of Irina Starshenbaum, who catapulted into fame due to the success of the sci-fi epic Attraction. Released in 2017, it became a domestic box office hit, grossing $18.3 million off a $6.3 million budget. When Kirill saw her in the movie, he knew that she was perfect for the role of Natasha. When she found out he was interested, she was very surprised. “I was in shock,” she says, “because it’s a very commercial film. Art directors are a little scared of actresses from sci-fi movies and commercial movies because they want somebody very special. [But] he didn’t scare at all — he said ‘let’s experiment’.” The casting was an instant success — they “made one scene, and everybody was so happy. He just hugged me and said ‘I love you.’ And I thought its a good thing. I was so happy.”
All three actors repeatedly state how happy they are to be in a project like this. Made exclusively with outside funding, Leto represented the chance to work with one of Russia’s finest directors — both cinematically (with successes such as The Student, which premiered at Cannes in 2016 as part of Un Certain Regard), and theatrically, credits including a controversial ballet interpretation of Nureyev at the Bolshoi. This performance was described by renowned theatre critic Tatyana Kuznetsova as having the potential to “become the Bolshoi Theater’s most successful and profitable ballet since the fall of the USSR.” It was initially banned for its depiction of “gay propaganda,” before premiering in December last year to a rapturous reception. It also just won Russia’s top ballet prize.
“A country that does not value its heroes is such a shame,” says one line spoken in the performance. It could easily be applied to the director himself, who has proven such an inspiration to his fellow actors, but could not be in Cannes himself to bask in his film’s warm reception. They still literally carried the banner for him, bringing a cut out of his name along with them to the Red Carpet premiere. After the premiere was over, Yoo says that they “huddled together and were very emotional about it, because of what we’ve been through.”
Starshenbaum has similarly mixed emotions regarding the ecstasy of being at Cannes without the man who made it possible: “Here is a great holiday for me. I feel like I’m dreaming. I’m so missing Kirill. I so wish he was here. I want to hug him and say I love you, thank you for this opportunity. It’s not [an] everyday thing. So I’m proud of him, really proud of him.” When I asked Bilyk if this premiere felt like a validation of Serebrennikov’s work, he simply stated: “Of course. I’m really happy.”
For many Russians, the time before perestroika brings with it a certain nostalgic glow. This purity is reflected in the film itself. Bilyk says that Serebrennikov “Just wanted to make a film that was pure. About true friendship. And about those last couple of years where it was still possible to have true friendship. This era really existed for a short time [before] this whole thing became an industry and people started making a living out it.” Yoo mentions that “It was a time of innocence and a time of pureness. Today we live in a very cynical world. We’re lazy enough to label something very quickly without thinking it through and without being sensitive.”
Leto is an effective rebuttal against cynicism, and an imploration to keep playing the music no matter what artistic constraints you may operate under. While the film itself doesn’t draw any particularly obvious parallels between the Soviet era and current day Russia, outside events have naturally worked together to make the premiere feel politically vital. In honouring Victor Tsoi, a unique icon of artistic freedom whose success was impacted upon by a repressive regime, Serebrennikov has inadvertently become an icon of artistic freedom himself. Already out in Russia, it has the potential to speak to agitated members of the populace looking for political change. For Starshenbaum at least, spreading the message is the most important thing: “The greatest festival in the world needs his art. Every artist needs to realise that he doesn’t just live for himself. He wants to share his art for everybody.”