Russian musical comedy-drama film - Stilyagi
Stilyagi (Russian: Стиляги, also known as Hipsters in the English release) is a 2008 Russian musical comedy-drama film directed by Valery Todorovsky and starring Anton Shagin and Oksana Akinshina. Set in mid-1950s Moscow, the film depicts the Soviet youth subculture "stilyagi", along with their struggle for self-expression within the prevailing reality of the Soviet repression.
Stilyagi has been featured at the Toronto International Film Festival, Nashville Film Festival, and the Cleveland International Film Festival, where it has been an audience favorite. It won the Audience Choice Award at the Anchorage International Film Festival in 2009 and several Golden Eagle Awards and Nika Awards, including Best Film in both. In Russia, it has become a cult film, as most of its score consists of covers of 1980s and 1990s Russian rock music from bands such as Bravo, Nautilus Pompilius, Nol and the Red Elvises.
In 1955, a group of young Muscovite Komsomol (communist youth) students led by Katya intercepts illegal stilyagi gatherings in Gorky Park. Perceived as "enemies of society", the stilyagi are forced to flee, with many of them getting caught and their clothing, ties or hair cut by the Komsomol for demonstrative purposes. Mels, a twenty-year-old paragon athletic student and member of the Komsomol, is ordered by Katya to chase one of the escapists, another young girl. However, the girl soon tricks him into believing that she broke her ankle, and then abruptly pushes Mels into a pond, at the same time inviting him to "come spend some time with Polly (Russian: Польза, wordplay on "benefit") on the Broadway".
The next day, Mels visits Gorky street and runs into the same group of stilyagi, with Polly among them. Before being aggressively seized by Dryn, another member, he has a short talk with Polly during which she gives him a kiss on the cheek, all while asking Mels if he has gotten sick. Fred, the leader of the gang, then appears, calling Mels an "innocent little schlub", and all the stilyagi leave the scene in Fred's car. Determined to being in love with Polly, Mels decides to change himself for someone she would appreciate: a stilyaga.
Upon visiting local cloth retailers, Mels finds out that all the clothes sold there are alike, with no stark differences. He then gets called into an alley by an imported goods dealer, who sends Mels to a former textile factory operator, now retired and making on demand clothes for "different" people (clandestinely). Soon, Mels gets his new outfit prepared, turns a pair of regular shoes into high-platforms at his father's workplace factory, creates a compound to make his hair stay up, etc. When he comes out of his room dressed like a stilyaga, his father, whom he lives with, joyfully approves of the change as a phase of self-expression. However, Mels' younger brother, as well as all of the neighbours inside their communal apartment, give him the cold shoulder and remain speechless. Mels gets people shoving him and throwing things at him on the street, but continues on to find another member of the stilyagi, Jewish medical student Bob.
Mels intercepts Bob near his house and starts questioning him about learning to dance like them, with Bob mainly reluctant to respond by distrust (believing it to be a trap). Mels insists and finally the two visit Bob's apartment, where they have fun at dancing the boogie to bootlegged songs. Their party crashes when Bob's parents get home and Mels is obliged to leave. Now having a reliable connection to the gang, Mels finds Bob and the rest of stilyagi near a local theater, trying to get in. First hesitant, Polly and the others finally accept Mels amongst them, just as Fred arrives and provides everyone VIP entry. Mels assists a show of rock-n-roll songs, one of them performed by Fred, and has fun dancing with the others. On their way back, the stilyagi promptly meet with the komsomol and as two gangs clash, Katerina sees Mels amongst her enemies. Still confused by his actions, she then watches Polly take Mel's hand on purpose, and ends up publicly scolding him.
At Fred's party, Mels sees that Polly still remains mainly indifferent to him. He asks Fred for help, but ends up hearing a bad advice, much to the amusement of the rest of the gang. As he remains alone with her in a room, she tricks him again by excusing her to go to the bathroom, with the gang then busting him naked as he thought that the two would have sex. Despite the embarrassment, Mels' determination to change into a better man for Polly is not extinguished, and he gets Fred's appreciation for this. Later Fred suggests that Mels learns to perform in order to impress girls, as he himself does. The remark leaves Mels determined to find a saxophone and learn to play it.
Several days later Mels meets the clothes dealer again and insists on obtaining a saxophone. The dealer leads him to an upbeat traveling jazzman whose career was broken by the Stalinist regime after he chose the "wrong" instrument. The musician proposes to do a favor of selling Mels his own saxophone, if Mels learns how to play it first. Mels then spends several nights listening to pirate radiofrom New York City trying to improvise the sound on the saxophone, but ends up faking it multiple times, until he is visited by the spirit of Charlie Parker who seemingly teaches him to play properly. This soon has Mels performing for his friends in a theater, of which he is nervous at first, yet he finally finds the vibe to much applause from the gang. At the end, Polly comes and gives Mels her first sincere kiss.
Soon after, Fred reveals to the gang that his father, a major diplomatic figure, has arranged a diplomatic post for him in the United States, and he now must leave the country, albeit provided that he marries a Soviet woman from an "approved" family, first, abandoning his lower-class, unconnected girlfriend, Betsy. Since Fred has the most authority in terms of leader, he grants future leadership to Mels, creating a situation of disdain in other members and eventually arising tensions. Katerina, somewhat aware of these events, decides to try to lure Mels away from Polly by dressing better than her. As the two meet, she soon feels that Mels doesn't fall for her, and as she corners him, he rejects her, explaining that she has not changed at all. Furious, Katerina slaps him and runs away. The next day, Mels comes to class realizing that a meeting is being organized by Katerina with the purpose of excluding him from the Komsomol for being a rootless cosmopolitan. He silently gives away his badge, thus sealing his choice of remaining a stilyaga.
Although Mels gets great popular attention with his performances during the following months, he doesn't see that around him, the former stilyagi start pacing down their lives as, apparently, their lifestyle gets them nowhere. One night Polly meets drunk Mels at the bar and announces to him that she is pregnant with a child of an exchange African-American medical worker whom she met as intern and who was much older than her. Mels remains optimistic to raising the child anyway, but does not tell the others about its origins. As he settles down to become a father, the popularity of the stilyagi slowly turns into collective friend gatherings instead. The next year, Polly gives birth to a dark-skinned baby boy, John, but Mels' family and neighbors in the communal apartment end up accepting him as their own, despite the differences.
Months later, Fred returns from the United States to visit Mels. Having himself outgrown the movement by now, he witnesses a family living by Soviet standards with Mels still dressing as a stilyaga, and Polly raising a black-skinned toddler. Mels then tells Fred that most of the other members of their former gang moved on with their lives, with Bob eventually arrested and sent off to Siberia for buying illegal records from a smuggler, Dryn getting into the army, etc. They share a bottle of Jack Daniel's, after which Fred promptly reveals to Mels that there are no "stilyagi" in the United States, and that he has never met there anyone living the same lifestyle, as such flamboyant behavior and such disrespect for the laws would have had them locked up in a mental asylum in mere minutes. Appalled by this, Mels shouts at Fred, telling him to get lost, and rhetorically states to himself: "But we do exist..."
The film ends with Mels performing a song (together with the remaining stilyagi) that draws parallels between his movement and that of the late 1980s "nonconformist" Soviet countercultures (such as rockers and punks, among others), the moral of which is the importance of remembering to always stand for the values one believes in, which in turn allows for any of these cultures to be remembered over time.
- Anton Shagin as Mels
- Oksana Akinshina as Polza
- Evgeniya Khirivskaya as Katya
- Maksim Matveyev as Fred
- Igor Voynarovskiy as Bob
- Konstantin Balakirev as Dryn
- Ekaterina Vilkova as Betsi
- Sergei Garmash as Mels' father
- Oleg Yankovsky as Fred's father
- Leonid Yarmolnik as Bob's father
- Irina Rozanova as Polza's mother
- Alexey Gorbunov as Labukh
The soundtrack for the film includes hits from well-known Soviet rock bands such as Kino, Chaif, Bravo and Nautilus Pompilius. It features covers of several 1970s and 1980s songs with different lyrics.
Reception and legacy
In Russia, the movie received mostly positive ratings and mixed reviews (many of the critics accused Stilyagi of being anachronistic with regards to the historical events), as well as two awards: Nika Award (2008) and Golden Eagle (2009).
It has spawned an interest in namesake subculture, with parts of it soon integrated in Russian youth fashion stream, as well as increased interest for musical instruments such as the saxophone and the trumpet among young Russian pop music producers. Starting 2011, the film was also spun off into a musical concert which has toured Europe and North America during the same year.
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