No history lesson needed to enjoy director Valery Todorovsky’s immensely entertaining Hipsters, a vibrant, red velvet curtain of a musical torn from the grey pages of an Iron Curtain primer. Not that you’d be looking for a history lesson from a musical on a Friday/Saturday night movie date (big hint, fellas). Instead, take note of a slicked up, Eastern rendition of, arguably, an American invention with what might be the first Commie Musical, a world where vinyl platters are louder than bombs.
A movie with no short amount of sass, pizzazz and all sorts of jazz, Hipsters‘ story relies on the influence of two quintessential Amerikanski musicals, West Side Story and Grease (or more accurately, Grease 2, which as you might remember, is really just Grease 1, inverted). The stranglehold that Communism has on Russian culture serves as the excuse for the existence of what would be considered in the lexicon of the musical the two rival gangs, in this case the stilyagi vs. the Komsomol shock troops. But if neither the historical context nor the political terminology register easily, simply think of them as the Swing Kids vs. the Nazi kids, er, Commie kids, or in its most derivative visual code, the Colors vs. the Grays.
From their tall creepers to their sky high pompadours, the “colorful” hipsters are led by reformed and re-schooled ex-shock trooper Mels—whose rebirth into cool results in dropping the S for the more American working class sounding “Mel”–a homely-looking protagonist who is no young John Travolta, or even a young Maxwell Caulfied, for that matter. This small lapse in aesthetic doesn’t stop the hipsters from being straight out of a Minelli technicolor musical: all warm and bright colors and hot hot hot blooded, in direct contrast to the drab uniformity and cold austerity of the comrades. Despite the year being 1955, these hipsters have a penchant for the anachronistic with the occasional appearance of three-button Teddy Boy-inspired plaid suits and Mary Quant-type pencil skirt/top combos, fashion more suited for late ’70s/’80s mod revivalist confection such as Absolute Beginners than‘70s rock and roll re-imaginings like Grease. But the wardrobe stylings are probably as much an influence of the modern-day musical as it is creative license since that contemporary flair spills on over to Hipsters‘ general visual style, with its Luhrmann-esque histrionic camera effects (hyper forwards, color oversaturation) and romanticized melodrama. Yet, it’s not just Baz’s bag of tricks that inevitably and indubitably finds its way into Hipsters. In fact, this is a movie with so many disparate influences it feels like parts of it may have been directed by Nicholas Ray or Lina Wertmüller (an influence Luhrmann himself should own up) or your uncle Vanya, for that matter, which is fine by this reviewer since those scenes and their moods never feel forced but only serve as dramatic short hand strung knottily along throughout the movie’s running time of slightly over two hours.
Though the musical sequences are mostly formidable homages to post-war American music (jazz, big band, rock and roll) the most interesting number belongs to the sexually repressed commissar Katya, who’s not just the leader of the Grays but who is also in love with Mel the betrayer. With its rap-like cadence which, ironically, nicely befits the controlled order of the communist life, the piece is reminiscent of the type of stripped-down, Orwellian-inspired commercials that got directors some Hollywood attention back in the ’80s. The song is unexpected, completely out of place with the rest of the music, makes no logical sense, but yet makes all the sense in the world.
So if logic is what you’re looking for on a Friday/Saturday night, stay at home and open up a math book, for logic is not a trait that is inherent to the musical. In fact, the musical genre is downright surreal, usually pure fantasy with little regard for the harshness of reality, right up there with porn and Kurth Vonnegut’s science fiction. Case in point: Mel’s transformation to hepcat at the hands of an inspirational apparition (what’s hipper than a black saxophone player? Frankie Avalon? Yeah, right.), all the while “Sarah Vaughan Signs [not sings!] George Gershwin.” Gotta love it.
Hipsters opens at the Nuart on Friday, October 28th.