A moody, occasionally violent, rags-to-riches story about a doomed rock star, “Shantytown Blues” reps an auspicious but flawed debut feature for Russian documaker Svetlana Stasenko, best-known for her well-traveled short, “Slivers.” Rapturous, poetic lensing by Irina Uralskaya is a major plus, as is the edgy attempt to limn the ’80s perestroika generation through the lead character’s shifting fortunes. But storytelling crunches gears too often, and only Central Euros could love pic’s uniquely pompous brand of cock-rock guitar shredding. Though well received recently on local release, “Shantytown Blues” is neither commercial enough for serious export nor arty enough for festival acclaim.
It’s 1980 in a shabby, provincial Russian burg nicknamed Shanghai, and 12-year-old tearaway Mishka (a remarkable debut by real children’s home denizen Vasya Lykshin) dodges his family to hang with the dope-smoking fast crowd who have banned but coveted Beatles records. In the smoky club where punk-influenced bands play, local kingpin John (Alexander Tsurkan) encourages Mishka to sing, and gives him shelter when he runs afoul of the law.
When John is killed by a rival gangster, assisted by cunning klutz “Wacky” (Gennady Nazarov), Mishka shoots the assassin dead and is sent to prison. Seven years later, Mishka (now played by Mikhail Yefimov) comes home from juvenile detention with a jailbird’s thousand-yard stare but a head full of songs. He forms a band, and before long, the group moves to a squalid squat in Moscow and seems on the fast track to success.
Final reel comes unstuck with protracted scenes of Mishka brooding and throwing star tantrums before a lackluster final showdown and damp conclusion. Perfs are patchy but generally okay, with Yefimov channeling what seems to be a cross between Kurt Cobain and Dostoyevsky’s Raskolnikov in ’80s threads.