Cannes Review: 'Leto'

Tuesday, May 15, 2018 - 5:00am

The requiem for the local scene — the underground scene, the house show scene, the “we’ll never be big, that’s okay we just want to be” scene — is the greatest kind of music movie. To perfectly encapsulate how a specific moment in a specific place looked and sounded is one thing. To recreate its feeling is another ambition altogether. Russian filmmaker Krill Serebrennikov’s latest film “Leto” does both with a skill and joyfulness unmatched in recent memory.

The film follows Mike (Alexandr Gorchilin), the central and centering figure for the roiling Leningrad underground rock scene of the 1980s. He’s cool, calculatedly distant in aviator sunglasses and exudes a level of carelessness that cannot be matched by the stiff crowd of youths at the rock club he and his band frequent. Their every foot tap and head nod policed by rule-loving adults.

Mike and his crew, including his wife Natasha (Irina Starshenbaum), amble through the woods singing about summer. That’s where they find Viktor (Teo Yoo) and pull him into their circle and the plot is really set in motion. They dance and drink and play guitar. Jump over fire and run naked through the water. They are young and free.

But “Leto” doesn’t let its audience believe for very long that these are the youngest or the freest or the most counter-cultural youth in the world. Their exuberance is matched by self and state-sponsored censorship. Unlike its relatives in the music movie genre, “Leto” doesn’t look wistfully at a time when anything was possible, it vividly recreates a moment when people did as much as they could, as much as they let themselves do. That seems to be the greatest hindrance to Mike’s rise to the top: his inability to let himself rebel or succeed fully. That, and his proximity to Viktor’s superior talent, are crippling.

But even for the rest of his crew — who aren’t impeded by success their main collaborator and rival — Leningrad has slow suffocating effect. Serebrennikov navigates beautifully the divide between the intimacy and secrecy of their scene and the loud rebellion its existence demands. Early on in the film, during a train altercation, a new character looks into the camera and tells the audience they are about to hear a song by “Soviet enemies” The Talking Heads. And thus our heroes are off, running and jumping and punching their way through a heavily-accented, thoroughly charming cover of “Psycho Killer.”

In these musical interludes (as well as other bursts that are quickly noted to be ahistorical) we see these kids become the clashing, crashing, joyously angry punks their world does not let them be. This tension — between the narrative and the interludes  — is where the film finds a great deal of its success and proves an unexpectedly apt way to navigate the disparity between a free mind and a policed body. “Leto” has all the whispering intimacy of “Inside Llewyn Davis” and the joyful noise of “Sing Street.”

“Leto” is a standout of its genre not for its musical quality or mastery of rambling narrative (although both are truly exceptional), but for the way in which it provides a space for a deeply intimate portrait of musical moment and an exuberate depiction of youth culture to coexist.