Laziness has kept me out of trouble many times.
We only recognize it through hindsight, but Americans are spoiled by cultural freedom. Growing up in the 1980s and 1990s meant having the opportunity to listen to radio stations, records, and cassettes of music spanning multiple genres and eras. It was all at our fingertips and we didn’t have to do much to acquire it unless we lived in a conservatively oppressive household with parents who thought rock-n-roll was a gateway drug for Satanism. From new wave to grunge with blues and folk rock influences creating fresh experimental sounds, we sat in the front row of artistic revolution. And way at the back of the auditorium with an obstructed view and shoddy speakers were those whose governments banned every legitimate avenue towards enjoying the same without risking jail.
A film like Kirill Serebrennikov‘s black and white Leto therefore proves crucial to understanding what a thing like the Iron Curtain made impossible. Think about it: The Velvet Underground was formed in 1964 and Lou Reed’s third solo album Berlin hit stores in 1973 and yet this 1980s-set story of two of the Soviet Union’s most influential rock musicians (Mike Naumenko of Zoopark and Viktor Tsoi of Kino) has it seem as though both were just released. Why? Because that type of music had to be smuggled into the country, shared between friends, and translated for clarity. Everything was on a delay and the threat of retribution was all too real even after receipt. Clubs had to approve lyrics to ensure they adhered to Socialist values before booking a Russian band.
As such, groups like Zoopark and Kino needed to exist within the fringes regardless of whether their influences and ambitions were firmly stationed outside them. An elder statesman like Mike (Roman Bilyk) had to take talented newcomers like Viktor (Teo Yoo) under his wing to teach the many tricks of finding success in a country with “bouncers” hired to prevent audience members from bobbing their heads too fervently. They also had to expose them to new sounds and wild innovations from the likes of David Bowie or Blondie even if they didn’t necessarily enjoy the finished product. You don’t have to be a die-hard fan to appreciate and respect what these western musicians were accomplishing without censor boards breathing down their necks. Their existence was inspiration enough.
Serebrennikov’s film follows this friendship and professional kinship from the time they met at a beach-set get-together among Russian rock aficionados until the moment Viktor spreads his wings to transform the previously Mike-sanctioned Garin and the Hyperboloids into what would become Kino. There were less than ten years separating the two men and yet the generational gap between them was immense. Viktor came to Mike for advice and the latter did everything possible to foster the former’s talent and get it out into the world before it was too late (the Cold War made it so you couldn’t guarantee any Russian’s safety from the draft, imprisonment, or suicide). And while both artists would ultimately die young—a year apart—in 1990 and 1991, Leto doesn’t focus upon tragedy.
It instead highlights the wealth of optimism and energy of this rock movement behind enemy lines, so to speak. There’s this unyielding sense of camaraderie wherein everyone helps everyone without a jealous bone seemingly present in anyone’s bodies. They meet at their parents’ homes to listen to records or have live sessions and interviews to keep the culture alive. And they discuss whether what they’re doing is relevant considering they’re copycatting off music that’s already many years old. But that merely plays into the isolation of the USSR at this time. They didn’t know for sure if they were creating something new because they were so removed from their contemporaries. Regardless, what they performed was important enough at home to render any international success a bonus.
The filmmakers (Serebrennikov co-wrote with Mikhail Idov and Lili Idova) also highlight Natalya Naumenko (“Natasha”)—Mike’s wife. This shouldn’t be surprising since their script is based in part on her memoirs, but don’t assume things play out like the love triangle some marketing materials tease. While Natalia (Irina Starshenbaum) adores Viktor for his talents and human contrasts to the father of her child, the thought of an affair never manufactures itself despite her desire to give him a kiss. If anything the feelings shared amongst this trio are completely mutual as the communal living spaces communism affords allows them to co-exist with a pragmatism moving past intimacy. Natasha is thus less a point of incitement than a celestial object with whom the boys revolve around for narrative proximity.
She’s the common physical element in their lives to go along with their appreciation for rock and therefore always in the background if not having her ear bent by them in the fore. So our attention is best spent on what they’re saying than doing since a lot of their frustrations and hopes are expressed through these public and private interactions. Sometimes this means literally gleaning insight from their words into their thought processes and other times figuratively watching Serebrennikov springboard off their conversations into surreally kinetic passages of excitement before an omnipresent figure known as “Skeptic” (Aleksandr Kuznetsov) arrives to tell us the previous sequence never actually happened. The latter moments are a delight with sprawling musical numbers drawn upon and rotoscoped for added intrigue.
The first such vignette comes courtesy of a train car brawl of punks versus old guard set to Talking Heads’ “Psycho Killer” while white lines enter and exit from beyond the letterboxed frame; the next a rousing rendition of Iggy Pop’s “The Passenger” on a bus trip to deliver coffee; and the last Bowie’s “All the Young Dudes” arranged with a much more somber flavor at a house party of existential introspection. Add the periodic injection of color courtesy of footage shot by this Soviet collective’s volunteer documentarian (either in quick cuts or flanked by lyrics written in the margins) and Serebrennikov is obviously having fun with his history lesson of mood above drama. And since I’ve been listening to Kino ever since, I guess I was too.
 (L-R) Irina Starshenbaum as Natasha and Roman Bilyk as Mike in the film LETO. Photo courtesy of Gunpowder & Sky.
 Teo Yoo as Viktor in the film LETO. Photo courtesy of Gunpowder & Sky.
 (L-R) Roman Bilyk as Mike and Teo Yoo as Viktor in the film LETO. Photo courtesy of Gunpowder & Sky.