J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Hipsters: a Russian Freedom Jazz Dance

During the Cold War, Willis Conover’s jazz program was the most popular Voice of America show with listeners behind the Iron Curtain, despite the steady barrage of Soviet propaganda crusading against America’s greatest original form of music. With its unmistakable message of freedom, the Communists were right to be concerned. One soon to be former Communist Youth becomes a convert while pursuing the coolest chick he has ever seen in director-co-librettist Valery Todorovsky’s outstanding period musical Hipsters (trailer here), which opens tomorrow in New York.

Named after Marx, Engels, Lenin, and Stalin, Mels is junior party activist who looks like a young Conan O’Brien. Polly is a classic Russian beauty, who runs with the jazz-listening extravagantly-dressed hipster crowd. A decided underdog, Mel makes little headway trading in his drab proletarian wardrobe for a candy-colored suit. However, when he takes up the saxophone, he finally turns her head. Of course, their romance will be difficult. As hipsters, they are constantly harassed by Mels’ former comrades. It hardly helps matters that Katya, his old youth brigade leader, has been carrying a torch for him.

By 1955, most American teenagers were more interested in Elvis Presley than Charlie Parker, but rebellious teens in the USSR had to take what they could get. Hipsters’ music is definitely jazz, but it leans toward jumpier big band arrangements, which are a lot of fun and work well in the film’s context. It also makes no bones about jazz’s American origin, clearly associating it with notions of freedom. Even one of Conover’s fondly remembered VOA broadcasts is heard briefly.

Sexy and stylish like a hipster, the film dramatically contrasts the color and flair of the rebel jazzers with the drabness of their Soviet environment. Todorovsky created some wonderfully energetic, period appropriate musical numbers, which display a respect and affection for jazz. The hip jitterbuggery choreography is quite entertaining, yet perhaps the musical highlight comes relatively early, when Mels fantasizes playing “Summertime” as a duet with a Parker-esque alto player in New York. It is a beautiful scene.

Yet, Todorovsky never ignores the ugliness of the Communist era either. At times, the enforcement of Party discipline at Mels’ school resembles scenes from The Wall. Clearly, this was a time of paranoia and petty abuses of power.

As Mels, Anton Shagin passes the likability test, but hews rather closely to a zone of reserved shyness. In contrast, Oksana Akinsha smolders up the screen with old school movie star appeal. In an acutely human supporting turn, Igor Voynarovsky adds further depth and pathos as Boris (or Bob if you’re hip), Mels’ initial tutor in the school of cool. It is also nice to see veteran Russian actor Sergey Garmash as Mels’ gruff but sympathetic father.

Visually dynamic, Hipsters is a refreshingly inventive, jazz-centric take on the movie musical. It is easily the best Cold War era musical since the Czech film Rebelove, which might not mean much to a lot of people, but is high praise indeed. A wonderfully entertaining film with serious substance, Hipsters is already one of the year’s best. It opens this Friday (2/24) in New York at the Cinema Village.

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