Leto is a delicate portrayal of a little known period in music history- 1980’s Leningrad, Russia- unfortunate enough to be released in a year in which so many musical ventures have come and gone. The film however, refuses to conform or be shackled by its western counterpart’s reputations. A weaving balancing act of love and Rock ’n’ Roll culture (though western music is heavily influential to the scene in Russia), the music still sounds vibrant and alive, almost different than how we remember music from the 80s. The oversaturated music genre of 2019 needed an injection of something ‘almost different’ – Leto provides and satisfies as it romps through an underground music scene in a country so often misunderstood. Soviet angst channeled through music, infectious and bold, soft and jagged, the sounds of Russia’s Rock underground bubble to the surface, Leto is an earnest biopic of Kino and their formation by enigmatic Viktor Tsoi.
Viktor Tsoi (Teo Yoo) inserts himself into the lives of talented singer-songwriter Mike Naumenko (Roman Bilyk) and his wife Natalia (Irina Starshenbaum). A bond that slowly develops into a love triangle, the film’s only real fault is these relationships are maybe underwritten, we can still trace the elements of tragic romance faltering. Successful in this underground scene, Mike is popular, though careful; he hangs back with his wife and child whilst his bandmates party with the groupies. Soon Viktor and Mike go on to work together in a seemingly untested friendship. Still, Natalia Naumenko loves her husband Mike but is inexplicably drawn to Viktor and his solemn aura of mystery. The words and lyrics of Talking Heads, T. Rex, Iggy Pop and Lou Reed become biblical, visually representative of spirituality and gospel for Mike and Viktor and their bands.
Though claims of factual inaccuracy were received from founding members of Russia’s rock scene, the Russian musicians are never heralded as visionaries or revolutionaries: they simply exist despite an oppressive Soviet Union, present only around the edges. Leto went on to be selected to compete for the Palme d’Or at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival, despite criticism from musicians and production issues. Arrested in 2017 for alleged fraud, Kirill Serebrennikov managed to finish Leto without the internet, with only notes and unused footage to finish the film. Shot beautifully in black and white, it is refreshing to see a Russian production that isn’t black and white to emphasise the Cold War or to a sense of miserable representation of Eastern history. A somewhat successful merging of eastern and western influences, Leto is truly a valuable piece of Russian cinema and demonstrates a distinct effort to reach outwards.
Music will save you, especially in 80’s Leningrad. A compelling, well cast musical portrait of an obscure time, Leto, Russian for summer, is pure and full of heart.