Hipsters (Stilyagi) – Movie Review

The birth of the cool in the USSR forged into a rocking Soviet Graffitti that will heat the world.

With a cast of two hundred, the first Russian musical in fifty years lands with the crescendo of a battalion of big bands and the flash of a cold war nuke. Valeriy Todorovskiy directed this charming peon to the birth of America’s beat generation. It is no surprise that the melodramatic absurdity of Zoot suits and the birth pains of post WWII popular music resonated around the world.

The surprise is that these sacred vestiges of American art were practiced in the depths of the cold war Soviet Union. Hipsters, as they were called, openly flaunted their allegiance to the over-the-top bourgeoisie while Khrushchev pounded his shoe of the table and swore he would bury America. It is a shame that it took sixty years for this marvelous story to make it to screens the world over. These hipsters need to be recognized.

Written by Yuriy Korotkov (based on his book “Boogie Bones”) with a libretto by director Todorovskiy this musical review is choreographed, rehearsed and performed with the yeastiness of Bob Fosse multiplied by the drilled precision of the Soviet space program. Even the most jaded of American musical lovers will shed a tear at the comedy, tragedy and unabashedly cornball dancing, singing and costumes.

This is America in the forties and fifties done better than Americans in the forties and fifties could do it. It is America seen through a peephole by an isolated civilization and amplified as required to suit their needs.

Anton Shagin plays Mels, a twenty-year-old member of the communist youth movement who knows a wooden nickel when he sees one. As the hipsters (“stilyagi”) strut their stuff, the boys in their skyscraper pompadours, and plaid checkered Zoot suits and the girls in their piled high hairdos outrageous full skirts, Mels knows they represent the decadent West sprouted in the peoples republic as a lesson on the gateway to hell for the comrades of socialism.

He also knows he wants, more than anything, to wear those clothes and maybe, even, to dance just a few of those forbidden steps.

Throwing himself at the feet of one of the minor hipsters he takes dance lessons in secret. He arranges clandestine meetings at secret hipster haberdashers where arcane signs and counter signs open up a world of forbidden secrets. Pegged pants, suspenders and ties as loud as a MIG-15 appear from vaults and hidden closets and attach to the born again hipster as if by some self-ordained force of nature.

Polly (Oksana Akinshina) shines under the glittering Moscow lights like Natalie Wood in “West Side Story.” She is as dangerous as she is irresistible. She is the forbidden fruit of the wrong side of the tracks; the siren Marx and Lenin warned us about. Or would have warned us about, if they had known.

Just as beautiful in her own severe, lean, stripped down dominating manner is the alpha female party apparatchiki Katya (Evgeniya Brik). Katya has capitalized on the party line to tie a leash around Mels’ neck and she does not intend to see the dog running free after the poodle skirted Polly. She will use all the charms she has and do whatever it takes to bring the muscle down on the hipsters and show Mels that no matter how many hipster shoes hit the floor, when hers hits the podium he will sit up and take orders.

Fred (Maksim Matveev) is the hipster with the most to lose and, as it turns out, the most to gain. As the son of a highly placed government minister his place of wealth and prestige in Soviet society is assured. His father covers for him as the time approaches for Fred to go on a fact-finding tour of America, a place where none of the hipsters has ever been.

American is the Land of Oz to the stilyagi. They know what they have heard, they know what they have made up, and that is all that counts. Fred seizes the day by pretending to be part and parcel of the party line. Convincing his father he will toe the line when he returns, he takes a trip to the USA that will change him, and the stilyagi, forever.

Filmed in St. Petersburg, Moscow and Minsk, “Hipsters” won the Nika (the Russian Oscar) for best film, sound, costumes and art direction. It has gathered a dozen other international awards from Abu-Dhabi to Toronto to Seattle. Fred Astair, Busby Berkeley, Manhattan Transfer, Stray Cats and Ziegfeld, it is all here. World champion crew and outrageous centerpiece music video by Nu Virgos. If you have an ounce of musical comedy appreciation, see this film.

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Directed by: Valeriy Todorovskiy
Written by: Yuriy Korotkov, Valeriy Todorovskiy (libretto)
Starring: Anton Shagin, Oksana Akinshina and Evgeniya Khirivskaya
Release Date: February 24, 2012
MPAA: Not Rated
Running Time: 125 Minutes
Country: Russian
Language: Russian
Color: Color

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