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

By Steven Lloyd Wilson | Film | October 10, 2013 |

By Steven Lloyd Wilson | Film | October 10, 2013 |

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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Steven Lloyd Wilson is the sci-fi and history editor. You can email him here or follow him on Twitter.