Jazz-loving hipsters take on Communism in 'anti-Soviet' musical

10th January 2009, Comments 0 comments

Russian film depicts the culture wars that raged between the Communists and the stilyagis – a rebellious, Western-influenced youth movement from the 1950s and 1960s.

Moscow -- A musical about jazz fans who mocked Communist prudishness in 1955 Moscow has become one of the most talked-about films in Russia, with some seeing parallels to the era of Vladimir Putin.

Stilyagi, named after a rebellious youth movement that flourished in the Soviet Union in the 1950s and 1960s, opened last month with a heavy promotional campaign and hopes of big box-office earnings.

The film depicts the colorfully dressed and sexually liberated stilyagi facing off against their arch-foes -- the Komsomol, the youth wing of the Communist Party, whose activists regularly raid stilyagi concerts.

With echoes of West Side Story, the film focuses on the unlikely romance between a Komsomol activist named Mels and a sexy stilyagi girl who shows him the wonders of American jazz, the foxtrot and hairspray.

Mixed in throughout are splashy song-and-dance numbers, like one where Mels is expelled from the Komsomol by a throng of young Communists chanting a song reminiscent of Pink Floyd's protest anthem Another Brick in the Wall.

Some critics have praised Stilyagi for weaving a serious political message into the entertaining genre of a Broadway musical.

"It is 100 percent political and 200 percent anti-Soviet," film critic Yury Gladilshchikov wrote in the Russian edition of Newsweek.

Gladilshchikov compared the film's Komsomol activists with pro-Kremlin youth groups of today, such as Nashi, which regularly holds rallies to denounce the opposition and to praise Putin, the powerful president turned prime minister.

"The stilyagi's irreconcilable enemies, the Komsomol of 1955, are associated with Nashi members, who ... seek out enemies of the Motherland in places where the Party leadership suspects their presence," he wrote.

The film's director, Valery Todorovsky, has also spoken of its political message but has stopped short of linking it to the Putin era.

"I think the question of freedom will always be the most charged issue in our country," Todorovsky said in an interview published in the Izvestia newspaper.

"Stilyagi were not dissidents, not opponents of the regime; they just wanted to listen to different music and wear colored socks. But things considered normal in other countries need to be won here through struggle. There were times when walking around in colored socks was a heroic deed. And this is not a problem of today, but an eternal problem."

Dmitry Yepishin, a 29-year-old who saw the film in Moscow, said he enjoyed Stilyagi but appreciated it mainly for its entertainment value rather than its political content.

"I liked all the Soviet motifs they showed, communal apartments and all that. It was pretty funny," Yepishin told AFP. "There was some kind of idea, but I wouldn't consider it the most important thing in this movie. You can watch the movie perfectly calmly without worrying about its meaning."

After opening on around 900 screens throughout the former Soviet Union, Stilyagi became the region's second highest-grossing film, according to the industry website Kinobusiness.com.

Despite the film's upbeat mood, real-life stilyagi were often persecuted and even sent to prison for their love of Western pop culture, said Alexei Kozlov, a saxophone player and jazz historian who has written about the movement.

"Jazz was seen as the art form of the enemy," Kozlov told AFP, adding that the stilyagi counterculture "totally contradicted the Soviet system."

But similar crackdowns took place in other countries as well, Kozlov said, citing the persecution of "swing kids" in Nazi Germany and the hostile reaction of the US establishment to rock music in the 1950s.

"The American machine waged a huge fight against rock and roll, which was very similar to our fight against the stilyagi," he said. "American ideologists even thought Communists had invented rock and roll to destroy US culture."

Alexander Osipovich/AFP/Expatica

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