There was a disquieting emptiness after the four-part documentary Punk concluded on Sky Arts. Every episode chronicling a specific period in punk rock, left an energetic spirit behind. The strums of the guitars, the beat of the drums, the screams of the singers inspired a world-shaking attitude that's hard to shake off.
Coming so soon after Punk’s absence, Kirill Serebrennikov’s fiction film Leto is far less straightforward: Russian, black-and-white, and experimental. Serebrennikov, recently freed from house arrest in Moscow, plunges into ‘80s Leningrad (now St Petersburg) where the underground punk scene was strumming and beating and screaming under the Soviet regime.
This affectionate milieu not only snaps a flavour of the time, place, and scene, but perfectly captures – in pictures and in music – that head-banging abandon felt when hearing a punk song.
Viktor (Teo Yoo) strumming one of his songs on the beach
Under the Soviets, Russian punks aren’t treated with any respect - they’re just short of being spat on. But they still play to excited audiences. Mayk, a popular punk singer in sunglasses, plays a venue where fans can only sit to watch. They can’t even hold up a self-made poster to show their excitement because they'd be kicked out for doing so.
But they’re a loving community, sitting in the forest or on the beach or in crowded apartments, making excellent music together. This is where Viktor, a kind of post-punk musician with a Joey Ramone haircut, meets Mayk and they begin a punk life journey together.
Viktor and Mayk (Roman Bilyk) begin their journey together
Not much of a story unfolds, Serebrennikov moving with mood rather than plot. At first, the film continues almost pleasantly - relaxing into that world. But then, one electrifying scene turns the film into a musical thrill-ride. When an old veteran tells a group of punks off on a train, claiming they’re singing ‘the songs of our ideological enemies’, reality tears apart with a destructive rendition of Psycho-Killer, which more than rivals the Talking Heads original.
It's one of many musical non-sequiturs before the return to real-world mundanity. A scene that starts normal can suddenly shift into a music video composed from chaos, where – like one of the abstract film paintings in Roy Andersson’s Songs from the Second Floor – the most boring looking people sing along. Iggy Pop’s The Passenger and Lou Reed’s Perfect Day deservedly earn the same treatment.
Leto soon shifts into a love triangle with Natasha (Irina Starshenbaum)
David Bowie, T-Rex, and The Velvet Underground also bless the soundtrack, as well as a fair few foot-thumping originals written by Russian band Zveri (led by Roman Bilyk, who plays Mayk). Leto scores with every track, succeeding as the best soundtrack of the year.
After the first hour, Leto shifts into something resembling a story, which involves a love triangle with Mayk’s girlfriend Natasha. She’s delightfully ambiguous, and Serebrennikov spends a lot of time with her – but she’s not much more than a divided love interest for Mayk and Viktor.
The lack of a strong, conventional narrative occasionally drags the scenes down and the film could’ve lost 30 minutes at least. But the electric, musical energy shocks the faults into barely visible ashes. Watch for the setting, stay for the music.
|What||Leto film review|
16 Aug 19 – 16 Aug 20, TIMES VARY
|Price||£determined by cinemas|
|Website||Click here for more information|