Film Review – Hipsters
Where there is a system telling people to act a certain way, there are always those who will embrace the system and those who will rebel. In the Russian musical film Hipsters (2008), from director Valeriy Todorovskiy, Mels (Anton Shagin) is one who is within the Communist system of the 1950s, and is all for it. He is a rising star among young communists and a favorite of his superior, Katya (Evgeniya Khirivskaya). One of the young communists’ biggest missions is finding members of the “hipsters” movement. Hipsters are rebels, and the young communists go out of their way to stop them from spreading their subversive ideology, which they believe could lead to open rebellion.
In one of these raids, Mels chases down Polza (Oksana Akinshina), and, as with this kind of musical movie, the relationships of the characters just happen. Mels sees Polza, and within their short conversation (which she uses to push him in a river and get away), he is willing to give up on his Communist beliefs to pursue the subversive hipster lifestyle that she has embraced, just to get close to her. Mels goes through the transformation and ends up with hipster clothing, learning to dance and play the saxophone. He’s invited into the group by Fred (Maksim Matveev), the default leader of the hipsters. Fred mentors him in their lifestyle and ways. This includes outrageous clothing in mismatched colors, hair in many styles to stand out, and, most importantly, dancing and playing jazz music, their truest way of expressing themselves.
Conformity to the system and what that means for people is a pervasive theme here. Katya cannot understand how anyone would want to be anything more than a pure communist, and is horrified by Mels’s change. She is willing to take extreme action to get Mels back—or to punish him. We also see this in more subtle ways with Fred, who is given freedom by his powerful parents. He is working towards a degree to become a diplomat, like his father, who is deeply in the Soviet system.
The tone the film wants to take when addressing these issues fluctuates a great deal. The hipsters will appear in open street corners dressed outrageously, while in other scenes they make desperate attempts to hide themselves. To even be seen in their outfits could get them arrested, which makes some of the serious issues seem arbitrary. However, it does show the appeal of the hipster lifestyle: they are the ones having fun, and do not understand why life needs to be always the same.
Though the lifestyle is itself well presented, we follow it by way of Mels and Polza. Their relationship is never really explored, and they end up having their own separate issues from the hipsters. While this could have helped to strengthen the story, with them having to mature and deal with their own conformity issues, they instead end up weighing much of the film down in side problems—including the ending. It is rushed, with too many serious ideas being pushed out at the end to try to encompass much of what the movie feels was wrong under the Soviet system and what the hipster movement did for later Russians.
While the relationship gets heavy handed, most of the film does a good job of keeping a nice balance between the darker and lighter moments, especially the music. For me, musicals are at their best when they are expressing what the characters are feeling or advancing the story in some way, and that is what most of the songs here do. They give us an insight into Mels’s and Polza’s feelings, more so than a lot of their time together. The communists even get their own song. The music is the ultimate expression of the hipsters, be it the desire to be free or to simply have fun. That, and it is quite catchy, with some great dancing and choreography as normal activities are turned into musical numbers. This is also where the movie has the most fun at playing up the ridiculousness of the situations everyone is in, and it provides some of the film’s best humor. As a teaser, we get an older man dancing around with an accordion early on to give you a taste of what is to come. The talent of the musicians is to be applauded, since, according to the director, all the actors did their own singing and dancing. This was impressive, especially since I was convinced that Mels was lip-syncing; he deserves praise for his vocal range alone.
There is fun to be had here, and a chance to see Russian culture in a way that I have not seen on film before. While not serving up a strong cast of characters, as an examination of a time and place in history and how people respond, Hipsters is a fun way to learn. There are moments where it gets too bogged down in its own message, but when it puts these moments to song, it is firing on all cylinders.
Final Grade: B