In the early 1980s, the Soviet Union experienced a belated version of the rock music revolution that had swept the Western world in the ’60s. Then-Soviet premier Leonid Brezhnev announced the establishment of a state-sponsored rock club in Leningrad, and bands like Zoopark and Kino took advantage of that venue to perform music. Although the Leningrad Rock Club tightly regulated these bands’ performances, its mere existence spoke to an increasing openness towards Western culture, and in some ways, it presaged the major political reforms that the USSR undertook after 1986.
Broadly speaking, Kirill Serebrennikov’s Leto is a “time capsule” film that seeks to portray this moment in modern Russian history. Set in 1980s Leningrad, the film follows Mike Naumenko (Roman Bilyk) and Viktor Tsoi (Teo Yoo), the respective founders of Zoopark and Kino. Over the course of the film, the two of them talk about what good music looks like, repeatedly perform to enraptured crowds, and form a sort of love triangle with Mike’s wife Natalia (Irina Starshenbaum).
Although Leto might sound like other, better-known films about musicians – for instance, A Star Is Born or Bohemian Rhapsody – you should know that Leto isn’t quite as approachable as its English-language counterparts. Whereas films like A Star Is Born feature fairly dramatic narratives, not much really “happens” in Leto. To put it another way, Tsoi and Naumenko do a lot of things in the film, but they never do them for the sake of reaching an overarching “objective,” and they definitely don’t “change” all that much between the film’s beginning and end.
If you have the patience for this kind of anti-dramatic narrative, however, you’ll find that Leto is a well-made and perceptive portrait of the atmosphere in 1980s Leningrad. To begin with, the film’s cinematography elegantly illustrates Tsoi and Naumenko’s countercultural worldview. With its reliance on long takes and smooth, fluid movements, the camera speaks to their sense of freedom, depicting them as somewhat aimless individuals who’re nevertheless determined to create something new and significant.
Beyond its portrayal of counterculture, however, Leto most stands out for its depiction of what Tsoi and Naumenko were up against. Periodically, the film includes musical sequences in which the protagonists turn defiant: as rock music plays in the soundtrack, they hit mean-looking Soviet authorities, smash instruments into the ground, and generally just run wild. Eventually, however, these sequences always end with someone who says – or holds up a sign that says – “This did not happen.” In each case, the film then immediately cuts to a new, music-free sequence in which the protagonists are shown acting in a much more submissive and acquiescent manner.
These contrasting sequences aren’t exactly subtle, but they nevertheless offer insight into the political implications of Tsoi and Naumenko’s work. For both them and the other performers at the Leningrad Rock Club, music was a means of rebellion. However limited and controlled they were, musical performances served as an outlet for free expression, an escape valve that stood in total contrast to the stifling and dehumanizing misery of daily life in a totalitarian state.
In this way, Leto turns out to be much more than it seems at first glance. Far from being just another music biopic, the film is both a denunciation of authoritarianism and a vindication of art as a tool of subversion. Although the film is set in the ’80s, its political outlook feels both timeless and timely, particularly when you consider that Serebrennikov himself is currently under house arrest for his criticisms of Vladimir Putin. So while it may not advertise itself as such, Leto ultimately deserves to be appreciated and remembered as a provocative, powerful, and important work.