Chances are you’ll know next to nothing about the early 1980s Leningrad rock scene before going into ‘Summer’, a good-looking, playful portrait of earnest musicians on the rise in Soviet Russia. The film follows the baby steps in the career of Viktor Tsoi (Teo Yoo), who went on to front the pioneering rock band Kino, and it’s shot in attractive widescreen black and white, with odd moments of animation laid over the images and a character who breaks the fourth wall to comment on the action or to hold up a sign declaring ‘THIS DID NOT HAPPEN’.
The film’s punk credentials are strong – but what comes through even more strongly is an uncynical sense of romance, passion and youthful idealism, with ample fractured scenes of musicianship and larking about. Think ‘24 Hour Party People’ with 1980s Manchester swapped out for a forlorn, crumbling industrial city that looks a bit like, well, 1980s Manchester.
Beyond Russia, audiences might scratch their heads at exactly who’s who and what’s going on, but the film’s strong sense of time and place and wistful mood of youthful idealism are strong enough to pull through anyone partial to pop-cultural origin stories. The camerawork is also dreamy, with long following shots taking us upstairs, through apartments, backstage and elsewhere. It’s an insider’s view of culture and politics behind the Iron Curtain, so themes of censorship and far-flung inspirations are ingrained and never laboured.
You might not know the music, but you’ll clock the influences: T. Rex, Lou Reed, Blondie, Talking Heads, Bowie, all of whom we hear ample of, alongside the music of Tsoi and his comrades (a warning: if you’re allergic to earnest Russian rock lyrics, you might be in trouble…). The film’s writer-director Kirill Serebrennikov (‘The Student’) runs a prominent theatre in Moscow and is currently under house arrest in Russia on embezzlement charges presumed to be an excuse to silence a government critic – so the film’s scenes of Tsoi and his friends at loggerheads with traditionalists and the authorities arrive with a new, loaded meaning. Let’s hope Serebrennikov’s story ends more happily than Tsoi’s: he died young in a car crash in the early 1990s, just as Russia was starting to open up more to the distant wider world he took such inspiration from.