Rebels with a Cause: Valeri Todorovsky’s Russian Hipsters and the Postwar Jazz

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Mels (Anton Shagin) and Polly (Oksana Akinshina)

Russians tend to love music. People who are familiar with the country’s cinema know that there are usually a couple of songs in the films produced in Russia, especially in those from the Soviet period. Actors often double as singers and vice versa. It is therefore surprising that the musical had been neglected by the movie industry for almost half a century – until a few years ago.

Hipsters is a colorful and soulful 2008 movie directed by Valeri Todorovsky and financed by multibillionaire entrepreneur Mikhail Prokhorov, the owner of the American basketball team New Jersey Nets and one of Putin’s rivals in the 2012 presidential elections. It depicts a subculture that has been largely forgotten in Russia and has probably never been heard of in other parts of the world.

Pretty much everybody is familiar with the youthful American rock ’n’ roll rebels of the 1950s. Nowadays, they are largely personified by no other than James Dean. Little do we know, however, about their counterparts in the Soviet Union. In the post-Stalin years, there was a group of youngsters that hated the restrictive system and wanted to set itself apart from the rest. They called themselves stilyagi or ‘hipsters.’ The movie tells their tale.

Our hero Mels (Anton Shagin) is a member of Komsomol, the Communist Youth League, in the Moscow of the mid-1950s when Hipsters begins. He is true to party principles, wears the same uniform, and does the same boring things for the workers’ and farmers’ state as everyone else – until he runs into a bunch of stilyagi and falls head over heels for the gorgeous yet enigmatic Polly (Oksana Akinshina).

Mels is not only fascinated by the girl but also by the flamboyant gang of nonconformists led by the smooth Fred (Maksim Matveev), his girlfriend Betsi (Ekaterina Vilkova), and the bespectacled Bob (Igor Voynarovsky). He abandons his Komsomol identity and begins to dress and behave like the jazz-loving stilyagi. Mels becomes a part of the group, buys a saxophone, and begins his courtship of Polly. His change of heart causes him problems with Katya (Evgeniya Khirivskaya), the Komsomol commissar who has taken a fancy in him.

Hipsters is essentially a nostalgia piece. The characters are not only out of time and place in the Moscow of the 1950s but also globally. They do not realize that nobody in America cares about jazz anymore at that point, because rock ‘n’ roll has long supplanted it as the flavor of the day. And how could they? The stilyagi are trapped in Communist Russia, living a chimera created out of hearsay and their own illusions about ‘the land of hope and dreams.’ They try to have a good time despite the ghastly conditions and without any chance to get in touch with the real United States – until Fred is sent to New York to become a diplomat.

Todorovksy’s movie seems to copy a page from the Absolute Beginners book by design. Yet it completely outshines the 1980s musical with David Bowie in most aspects. Hipsters is brilliantly photographed, choreographed, and brims over with outrageous clothes and colors. The cast of youngsters, augmented by such veterans of Russian cinema as Oleg Yankovsky and Sergei Garmash, does a wonderful job in terms of both acting and singing.

On top of that, the film possesses a leading lady in the blonde siren Akinshina, known to Western audiences for her small role in The Bourne Supremacy, who does not only look a bit like Michelle Williams but also possesses her acting chops. Her Polly is contrasted with the equally pretty yet dominant apparatchik Katya, who fights with her for Mels’s favor. Each excels in her respective part, most notably, however, in the scene when Katya cuts off Polly’s long wavy hair to exact revenge for Mels having her turned down.

Hipsters is a testament to a generation of youths who dared to oppose the tyrannous régime because they wanted to express themselves. Their story deserves to be told loud and proud. The stilyagi accepted that they would be stigmatized for their conduct, and the movie is a convincing portrait of these characters and their subculture. When watching the film, we can share their laughter and their tears as well as feel their joy and their pain.

It is as if we were handed the keys to an alternative mid-20th century America in the middle of the Soviet Union, only that the stilyagi from the movie and their parents have even more to lose than the rock ‘n’ roll rebels from the ‘imperialist empire.’ Fred’s father is a diplomat whose position is put in danger by his son’s outlaw behavior; Bob’s dad is doctor who has seen a jail from the inside for not following the company line.

In many ways, Hipsters recalls the great American musicals from the postwar period. An ‘East Side Story,’ so to speak, but with a distinctive edge that only Russians could deliver. It is a matter of East and West colliding on a playground that has more in common with a battlefield and must be regarded in the sociopolitical context of the time. Stalin had just died, and his successor Khrushchev tried to make a name for himself by pounding his shoe on a desk at the United Nations. The Cold War was in its iciest stage.

The contrast between the two opposing squads could not be any more extreme than in the movie. On the one hand, you have the faithful disciples of communism with their pallid complexion, bland clothes, and humdrum. On the other hand, there are the colorful stilyagi who remain so full of joie de vivre despite their own share of tragedies and difficulties. It is truly a shame that it took more than five decades for their tale to be told, but, as they say, better late than never. Hipsters deserves to be watched.