The Movie Waffler Dublin International Film Festival 2019 Review - LETO | The Movie Waffler

Dublin International Film Festival 2019 Review - LETO

leto movie review
Rock biopic set in the Leningrad rock scene of the 1980s.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Kirill Serebrennikov

Starring: Teo Yoo, Irina Starshenbaum, Roman Bilyk

leto movie poster

Despite the restrictions imposed by the Soviet authorities, Leningrad boasted a thriving local rock music scene in the 1980s. If said scene had a CBGB, it was the Leningrad Rock Club, where the city's hippest music acts performed to an audience forced to sit still in their seats under the watchful eye of KGB agents. To play at the LRC, artists were forced to submit their lyrics to a censorship board who ensured they were towing the party line. The rebellion afforded to western rockers could land you in a gulag.

leto movie review

Director Kirill Serebrennikov takes us back to the heady days of the LRC with Leto, a jukebox musical / rock biopic / love triangle drama centred on two of the key players of the Leningrad rock movement. The biggest star of the era is Mike Naumenko (Roman Bilyk), a talented lyricist and musician who obsesses over the western rock music he adores, but pines for the lyrical freedom of the likes of his idols, Dylan, Byrne and Reed. Mike has grown complacent with his life, which by Soviet standards is pretty enviable. He lives in a (relatively) beautiful house with a (very) beautiful wife (Natalia - Irina Starshenbaum), but when young, principled songwriter Viktor Tsoi (Teo Yoo) arrives on the scene, Mike is forced to ask himself, "How did I get here?"

Mike takes Viktor under his wing, introducing him to the key players of the local scene, getting him gigs at the LRC and agreeing to produce his album. Things grow complicated when Natalia develops feelings for Viktor, which she openly confesses to her husband. "It's just like a teenage relationship," she admits; "we just hold hands and occasionally kiss". "Holding hands is the most dangerous thing of all," Mike responds. Mike finds himself torn between his love for his wife and his desire to foster the talent of Viktor, whom he views as the shot in the arm Soviet rock requires.

leto movie review

Tonally and formally, Leto is a major departure from the sombre dramas Serebrennikov is known for. With its light and breezy air, it has more in common with the human comedy of Sweden's Lukas Moodysson, and thematically it's somewhere between Moodysson's '70s commune drama Together and his teenage punk comedy We Are the Best!. Serebrennikov may be exploring heady themes like state censorship, artistic frustration and romantic insecurity, but it's all wrapped up in one of the most joyous cinematic experiences you're likely to have all year.

The bulk of Leto's budget must have gone on acquiring music rights, as not only does it feature the songs of Naumenko and Tsoi, but those of the American and British artists they idolise. It's something of a jukebox musical, occasionally breaking into fantasy sequences that see the pedestrians and commuters of the bustling Leningrad breaking into ensemble renditions of the likes of Talking Heads' 'Psycho Killer' and and Iggy Pop's 'The Passenger'. They're songs we take for granted in the west, and probably songs you're sick of hearing on unimaginative MOR radio stations, but Serebrennikov makes it clear what they represent to the young Russians of Soviet Leningrad - freedom and expression - and if you don't find yourself beaming with a smile during these sequences, well you probably have more in common with the KGB than you would like to admit. Each musical sequence ends with a member of Mike's entourage breaking the fourth wall to mournfully remind us that "It didn't really happen this way!"

leto movie review

Chances are that, like this writer, Leto will be your introduction to the Leningrad rock milieu, and you won't have any prior familiarity with the figures of Mike, Viktor and Natalia, but by the end of the movie you'll be in love with all three, and when the closing credits inform you of how young they were when they left us, you'll feel a knife to the heart. Yoo, Bilyk and Starshenbaum are instant movie stars, and I imagine watching them in Leto is akin to how non-European audiences must have felt when they first saw Moreau, Werner and Serre in Jules et Jim, a representation of youthful exuberance and glamour, larger than life in silvery light. And how refreshing is it to see an Asian male portrayed as an object of a white woman's desire?

We may have a wait for Serebrennikov's next movie, as he's currently under house arrest on fraud charges, which some posit as a frame-up for his Putin baiting 2016 film The Student. Russia may have gone from one extreme to the other - from atheism and communism to capitalism and Christianity - but it seems in some regards it's the same as it ever was. Same as it ever was. Same as it ever was.

Leto is in UK cinemas August 16th.

2019 movie reviews