Hipsters (2008)

2:43 PM

Contrary to popular belief, it's not hip to be square...but it's hip to be a hipster in Red Square! The year is 1955, the setting Moscow. It's ten years after the end of the Second World War and eight years after the start of the Cold War. A city washed over in a damp, grey gloom. Our initial impressions of this Communist hub is downright Orwellian. Even without a precise knowledge, it's not far from what we imagine Russia to have been like at the time. But then before you can even say borscht, the clammy streets are flooded with a Chuck Berry-esque number. Skirts are flying, heels are clacking, boys in plaid suits and pompadours are feeling up dolls as they rock out on the dance floor. These are the stilyagi, or as we might better understand them, the hipsters. This isn't Portland though, and these aren't your typical twee teens. If you're expecting doe eyes and horn-rimmed glasses, half blinded by a block of fringe à la Zooey Deschanel, you're going to be disappointed.

The hipsters of Moscow are actually a direct contradiction to the statutes of Communism as set up by the great leaders of the past. Where uniformity is praised and uniqueness, punished, the hipsters are veritable outlaws. In a rebellious frenzy, we first meet our main characters at an illegal dance with banned American tunes recorded on X-Ray sheets. In a typical Capulets vs Montagues fashion, worlds collide and the rockabilly Polly runs into the straight-edge Mels. Named for the rock stars of Communism; Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin, our main man Mels is really just a conflicted kid who wants to be a part of the hipster world. With some prompting from Polly and a gradual easing-into of the waters of anarchy, Mels bids 'do svidaniya' to the Commie crowd and joins the ranks of the cool kids. Pretty soon, Polly (who's basically the Russian Michelle Williams) and Mels (who I'm pretty sure is just Haley Joel Osment) become the Queen and King of the Hipsters. 

For all it's 'hipsterness', Stilyagi's most engaging moments actually come from the Communist youth and their dedication to taking down the hipsters. Going through the daily paces of perfectly executed hatred and prejudice, it's the brainwashed grey-clad kids with whom I sympathize most. That's not to say that being a hipster in Russia is a casual thing because unfortunately, being one in 1955 Moscow can lead to criminal charges. Whether it's for listening to non-approved music or for obscene dancing or for any number of other vulgar offences, just like the tiny town in Footloose, you can get busted for boppin'. However, since Stilyagi concerns itself so much with the fancy threads and coifs and tunes, we tend to forget to care about our titular hipsters and instead transfer concerns to the "enemy".

The stark contrast set up between the Hipsters and the gung-ho Communism groupies applies well to the screen, with the vivd polychromatic world of the former in a perpetual stand off with the sepia-glazed uniformity of the latter. However, everything that follows in Stilyagi is grossly misbalanced. There are some seriously fun and catchy songs and dance numbers, but they're stinted by the dreary, uninspired stretches in between. When a musical number jumps in, it's a total surprise because we've almost forgotten that what we're watching is a musical. Stilyagi's greatest downfall though actually isn't completely obvious on an aesthetic level. It's what's holding the film together, or really what's not holding it together that holds the film back. The editing is just as slow and bumpy as the polka beats that lumber along with the action. With a musical like this, Stilyagi should either be dotted with snappy, kinetic cuts, or it should be in the vein of Rodger's and Hammerstein - more likened to a stage play. Instead, the combination of medium-lenth shots in the musical numbers paired with long, dragged out ones, just sucks the energy right out of what should be an easily exciting film. 

Funnily enough, the standard of hipsterdom in 1950s Russia is set by what is believed to be the rebellious styles and tastes of North American youth, though it couldn't be farther from the truth. The lingo the stilyagi use are absolutely straight out of 1950s America, but it's not the language of a rebelling youth culture - it's just the norm. In fact, going beyond the norm, the styles and dialogue of the stilyagi are kind of akin to the goody-two-shoes variety. It's difficult to relate to the stilyagi who are according to a North American audience, actually pretty square. Stilyagi is a bit lost in translation and so loses its appeal somewhat. I can tell you who this film will appeal to though, and that's modern hipsters. I can hear the bored, withdrawn, cooler-than-thou remarks already, "I'm really into this cult Russian musical right now - you probably haven't heard of it", "It's like John Waters meets Moscow...by the way have you seen Pink Flamingos?" Newsflash! Just because it's counter-culture, doesn't necessarily mean it's any good. Stilyagi is a decent film, memorable to a North American audiences because of its exotic appeal, but in the greater scheme of things, it's neither amazing enough to recommend nor terrible enough to slander. 

What is worthwhile about the film though is a peek inside a Russia you never knew. A hipster subset isn't an element that's instantly associable with Cold War Russia but here you have it - a whole film dedicated to the hipster youth subculture. If anything, Stilyagi is worth a watch for this reason.

My rating: 6 cats

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