Tonight you are watching a Russian movie about the stilyagi, or hipsters, the men and women who followed jazz and rock and roll, the music, the clothes, the lifestyle in the Soviet Union of the fifties.
It’s not historically accurate. It is, appropriately enough, stylised with a strong touch of the musical about it. Everybody lives in beautiful rooms, even the ones who live in communal flats. The shops are very chic, even if they are full of black or grey clothes, the better to highlight the vibrancy of the stilyagi. And the musical numbers are in Russian, which wasn’t how it worked at all. As you understand it. Everything you know on the subject comes from a book called ‘Back in the USSR’ by Artemy Troitsky. But he definitely knows what he is talking about, although mostly it’s not about the stilyagi.*
Mind you, the film makers seem to have read it too. They are certainly doing the highlights anyway. Atmosphere of hostility. Much spitting and haranguing. People getting their hair shaved by well meaning mobs. Bootleg copies of American records on old X-rays. Many of the leading lights being the children of the upper ranks of Soviet society. Someone has just got arrested.
The story charts the journey of a young member of the stilyagi from onlooker to leading light in the movement. We are nearing the end of the film now and his best friend and wife have just spent the last half an hour highlighting how they over the fad they are in contrast to our hero, who is still determinedly sporting a quiff and playing his sax loudly enough to wake the baby.
You are not sure if the film has a point. Possibly there is a bit of sniffyness at what is essentially something of a hollow lifestyle, and one that is built on a romanticised view of the West at that. But the film definitely doesn’t stint the contrast between the joy and enjoyment of the stilyagi in contrast to that of the rest of the country either.
Plus the rather jolly song at the end sees the boy with delusion intact, albeit somehow also in the present day, surrounded by the youth cultures of the last fifty years, and seems to have trumped that rather downbeat conclusion. Who knows?
Pushkin**. Or someone with a better command of Russian, anyway.
You have found the film. It is called, appropriately enough, Stilyagi. And here is the lead at the moment his hipster life really takes off.
And you really like this song.
*You highly recommend this book, but only to people who have a working knowledge of Russian rock music, otherwise it probably makes no sense at all. Still, there’s always youtube.
**There’s nothing worse than a bad joke explained, but it might help to know that in Russian, there’s a little call and response thing which goes: ‘Who knows?’ ‘Pushkin knows.’ I dunno, become a revered national poet and writer of dirty limerics, and suddenly you are omniscient.