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The Best Russian Musical You Haven't Seen: 'Stilyagi'

By Steven Lloyd Wilson | Film Reviews | October 10, 2013 | Comments ()


stilyagi.jpg

I just don’t go for musicals in general. I don’t find them entertaining, I hate the concept of people breaking into song in their everyday lives for no apparent reason. My suspension of disbelief is completely incapable to standing up to that assault on the walls of the possible. The bare handful of times that musicals have interested me are when they are in the context of material that otherwise captivates me, in which the music serves the purpose of the story. For instance, the South Park musical, or the Buffy musical. Stilyagi is the third. There isn’t a fourth.

Stories serving the purpose of showcasing music strike me as completely pointless. If that’s what you want, watch a music video, but keep it out of my movies.

I’m well aware that I can just not watch them, but there is such joy in hating the things that I hate. And such sweet release in sharing that hate with everyone. That’s what powers the Internet. Not electrons or servers or freedom. The world is my lawn, and the Internet is where I yell at people to get off it.

In any case, I have gathered all of you here today not to bury musicals but to tell you of the wonder of Stilyagi.

I watched it for the first time in Russia, in the particular chunk of classes dedicated to watching films. My Russian was always weakest verbally. I could read fine, especially newspapers and such, but just understanding spoken speech never quite became comfortable. The experience left me in complete awe of those who actually attain fluency in a second language. Movies were especially difficult to understand, steeped as they are in cultural context and idioms and an insistence on saying things only one time. You don’t realize just how much people repeat themselves in day-to-day speech until you rely on it so that you can pick up the gist of what’s being said on the second or third time.

We watched a lot of films that I understand are quite good. Not that I really understood them so that I could actually appreciate that they were good. Ah, but “Stilyagi” was the perfect sort of film to watch because it’s visually entertaining, and you can basically follow the plot without understanding a word that’s being said. Finally, something musicals are basically designed for.

The movie is set in the Soviet Union of the 1950s, and focuses on a group of kids who like to dress up in what they think of as American style clothes, and listen to smuggled-in American jazz. They have secret clubs and parties, all set against the backdrop of the gray dystopia of the time and place. Basically, think Swing Kids except in the Soviet Union.

The title of the film is translated in the west as Hipsters, which is a totally inaccurate translation of the idiomatic meaning of the Russian word and the English word. But I digress into fields not my own.

The movie is entertaining as hell, even if you don’t speak any Russian, because the music is absolutely gorgeous, split about half and half between original songs and covers of Russian and Soviet era rock. Yes, there was Soviet rock music. And it’s both alien and familiar at the same time to a western listener.

You can get the DVD from Netflix, though it’s not streaming. And if you’re so inclined, you can with some searching find the movie in its entirety with subtitles on YouTube. It doesn’t get takedown notices issued since it’s never been really released in America. Here are a couple of the songs to give you a taste.

First, “Boogie-Boogie,” in which our protagonist seeks out one of the Stilyagi in order to teach him how to dance (there’s a girl he needs to impress, you see, there’s always a girl).

Second, a beautiful rendition of “Shalyai Valyai,” an old rock song by a band named Chaif.





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Comments Are Welcome, Bigots and Trolls Are Not


  • St

    Wow. Surprised to see here russian movie. There is another great and amazing song in it.
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v...

    It begins when his former mentor is shaming Mels. His mane MELS means Marks/Engels/Lenin/Stalin. First letters of the last names of famous Soviet politics. And then he decided that he wants to be just MEL. And she is like: “He just threw out last letter (Stalin)”. They could have put him in prison for that thing. Really.

    And she is shaming him in song for being Stilyaga. Because they should be all together, chained with one chain and proud soviet citizens. That he should be like other people. And at the end he gives her his communist membership card.

  • idiosynchronic

    My Russian scholar wife: "Wow, the Russians certainly got a lot poorer by the time I got there."

  • BWeaves

    How is this set in the 1950's if there are kids dressed in punk outfits? Or are these 1990's kids who like to dress and act 1950s?

    Anyway, it's going on my Netflix list. Hubby will love the Bogie-Bogie number.

  • That video is the final scene of the movie, in which alt/punk/whatever kids from the 1950s to the present all appear.

  • BWeaves

    Thanks!

  • megaera

    This movie forever left me with the image of bootleg records on x-rays. The last time I watched it, the subtitles weren't finished. I'll go check it out again. Thanks!

  • Randal Stevens

    I watched this a couple of months ago when it was on one of the movie channels. I too enjoyed it, and have kept it on my DVR to show to my Russian wife. I really liked the look and feel of it, it looked like a lot of the Russian movies from the fifties and sixties that my wife has shown me.

  • Sara_Tonin00

    While I roll my eyes at your irrational [yeah, I said it] hatred of musicals, I thank you for introducing me to a musical I've never heard of. It looks and sounds really entertaining.

  • Legally Insignificant

    I agree. If it's done well, musicals can be amazing. Hedwig remains my favorite movie of all time. The last scene between Tommy and Hedwig destroys me each and every time.

  • Sara_Tonin00

    Such an amazing musical. I'm so glad I might have the chance to see it live soon.

    I had a (straight!) friend who would put on The Wig Song and make us sing along to it when we were glum. That friend, by the way, also had a "bad friend" song - proving that people really do burst into song in real life. [ok, he's an actor, but still. :) ]

  • koko temur

    i would love to add that soviet era underground rock and metal scene were ABSOLUTELY VITAL in helping people maintaining their humanity and independence of thought while being brain washed to death in all spheres of life. music is where the resistence started. i was born to those kind of parents, i couldnt be happier that this movie exists and gaining some mainstream attention.

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