The Russian film Leto has nothing to do with 30 Seconds from Mars, thankfully, but it is about rock music, and the possibilities it can open up. The writer-director Kirill Serebrennikov introduces us to the longhairs of Leningrad as that city was in the early 1980s at a concert where groupies are smuggled in through bathroom windows (no change there then) while, up on stage, intense young boys make derivative assaults on the look and sound of the rock gods they've taped to their bedroom walls (again, this may be universal). More striking - more region-specific - is how the enthusiastic, fresh-faced audience is obliged to sit in polite rows, as if attending a Mussorgsky recital; black-clad security agents can be seen stepping in to confiscate anything so disruptive as a I-Heart-The-Band sign. From a later scene, riffing on the absurdity of committee- and state-sanctioned rock, we gather that all the songs we hear have been pre-approved for performance. Here, then, is a previously unseen image of the Soviet Union as it was under Brezhnev. Yet despite its chalkily artful monochrome images, Leto is no quaint period piece, rather an act of rebellion: you'll get a greater sense of where the film is coming from if I tell you that Serebrennikov, a noted director of confrontational theatre in his homeland, was only recently sprung from house arrest after speaking up in favour of gay rights and against the annexation of Crimea.
Granted, for a film centred on a vodka-swilling band of rockers, Leto might initially seem a rather quiet and mellow rebellion. The title, for one, translates as "Summer", and early stretches are characterised by a certain languor. Serebrennikov wants to immerse the viewer in a scene (in both the cinematic and musical senses) and a moment, tossing us into the deep end of backstage manoeuvres and beachside jams, and leaving us to figure out who the prime movers and shakers are in the New Wave-influenced combo calling themselves (ahem) the Aluminium Cucumbers. Twenty minutes in, however, just as we're starting to get our bearings, something happens - or, rather, something erupts: the band run amok on a humdrum commuter train to the sound of their own rough-edged cover of Talking Heads' "Psycho Killer", at which point Leto reveals itself as a thrashy, scratchy, postmodern musical. (The "Psycho Killer" sequence ends with a character holding up a sign that reads "This did not happen", recalling Michael Winterbottom's playfully unreliable Madchester story 24 Hour Party People.) What Serebrennikov is getting at here, you sense, is a certain attitude, a certain defiance - he's filming that much-sung phrase whatever people say I am, that's what I'm not. Confronted aboard the train by a Communist Party hardliner who claims he "screams like an arsehole", Cucumbers frontman Mayk (Roman Bilyk) retorts "the Sex Pistols scream. I howl"; in doing so, he's aligning himself not only with the Beat poets of yore, but also with the Beatles outsmarting the oldtimers on the express train to superstardom at the opening of A Hard Day's Night.
For Serebrennikov, rock - perhaps performance in any form - is inherently disruptive and oppositional: a means, however temporary, of overturning the status quo, interjecting a new idea, or simply letting rip with screams or, yes, howls that might otherwise be suppressed. (We know our heroes are on the right side of history when one strops out of a creative difference with the priceless "Do what you want. Play Duran Duran, even.") As a consequence, Leto keeps erupting - literally so, the screen suddenly bombarded with CG lightning bolts and comet trails that serve as analogues for the flashes of inspiration occurring before and behind the camera. Iggy Pop's "The Passenger" breaks out on a tram navigating the city streets; a rainstorm prompts a singalong to "Perfect Day". When one energetic act brings stagediving to the proletariat - a tricky business, when your audience is sat a full two feet from the stage - this monochrome movie briefly bursts into full colour, marking a great evolutionary leap comparable to the first glam rockers appearing on Top of the Pops. (Here, finally, are the 20th century boys our T Rex-hymning protagonists have been waiting for.) Coming from a director who's been on lockdown, Leto is unexpectedly expansive; you can't spy a trace of fear in the exteriors. Maybe that's what the music gives us, the film suggests: a fearlessness, the ability to front any challenge out and go forth into the world with the solidity of a battle tank. Even so, Leto struck me as delicately poised between the romantic and the realistic, the work of a creative who's spent ample time looking on from the wings, and thus developed a more rounded perspective on the creative life than the young bucks he thrusts centre stage.
For one thing, Serebrennikov sets the Aluminium Cucumbers (nope: still doesn't get any better) in a not dissimilar context to all those refuseniks in American movies set during Vietnam: the looming spectre here is the Afghanistan conflict, evoked in a recruiting hall tableau where the boys spread their buttocks for hard-faced nurses. And for all the raucous revelry that provides his leads with an escape of sorts, Serebrennikov never loses sight of the idea rock may be an inherently childish pursuit, getting some kind of a fix on the women left holding the babies while the men strum among themselves. (One doe-eyed beauty occupies more or less the same space in the film's affections as Liv Tyler in That Thing You Do! or Kate Hudson in Almost Famous, gazing up adoringly at the men she flits between and circles around.) There's a poignancy about this activity, borne out in a late, elegiac rendition of "All the Young Dudes" where the Cucumbers recreate the album art of more successful and enduring acts: here, Serebrennikov concedes that the Russian rock scene hasn't generated a whole lot of noise (Pussy Riot aside), but - hey - at least somebody tried. (In the closing moments, an Eastern slant on the payoff to American Graffiti, we see how many of these artists survived to see the new freedoms of glasnost.) That trying, the speaking up and out, is important to Serebrennikov, because he knows art has the power to be revolutionary - that the right band or song might just alter the way we dress, conduct ourselves, think, even vote. (Such uncontrollable conviction worries our leaders.) More so than any of the recent Western jukebox musicals, all of which felt too cosy and streamlined in their desire to repackage the canon while turning a quick buck, Leto throws a comradely arm around the viewer's shoulders and steers us towards the heart of rock 'n' roll - a place where young dreamers can sometimes change the world.
Leto is currently streaming on MUBI UK.