Filmmakers working in the rock music realm often have a fine needle to thread: When portraying a world of self-indulgence, how closely can they enter into the spirit of things before becoming self-indulgent themselves? In “Leto,” his sprawling, chaotically shaped ode to the underground Leningrad rock scene of the 1980s, gifted Russian filmmaker Kirill Serebrennikov only sporadically finds the sweet spot, landing on stray moments of both human tenderness and musical euphoria in a bemusing blizzard of assorted characters, styles and songs that often tips over into outright kitsch. Embellishing with numerous fictional details the true story of influential, tragically short-lived Soviet singer-songwriter Viktor Tsoi, “Leto” happily avoids the bland structural pitfalls of the musical biopic, but also provides outsiders with few entry points to its rather niche milieu. The scene is the star here, and Serebrennikov is more concerned that we experience it than understand it.
That conflicting blend of austerity and excess makes “Leto” an exceedingly tough sell to international distributors — even those who took a chance on Serebrennikov’s more rigorous last film, “The Student” — despite the luster of the embattled director’s first Cannes competition berth. He presented “Leto” on the Croisette in absentia, having been placed under house arrest in Russia last year on charges of corruption that have been much-contended by his artistic peers. If not as overtly political as “The Student,” “Leto” nonetheless represents about as flamboyant a statement of free artistic expression as Serebrennikov could make at this moment: There’s certainly nothing contained or inhibited about its celebration of artists who themselves were given little support or leeway by the Soviet government.
The film begins with one of several exhilarating sequence shots, tracking a throng of musos and fans as they invade the shabby backstage labyrinth of the Leningrad Rock Club. One of the few state-permitted public performance spaces for rock musicians, the Club becomes one of “Leto’s” recurring hubs of frenzied activity — thanks to expert work by production designer Andrey Ponkratov, you can practically feel the sweat and booze saturating the wallpaper. It’s a quaintly theatrical venue for boundary-pushing music, where audiences are instructed to sit politely and listen rather than mosh. Only in one of multiple dips into extravagant hedonist fantasy — a running device, with an occasional narrator billed only as Skeptic (Alexander Kuznetsov) as our guide between dimensions — does it become the reckless, dangerous, smashed-guitar dive we’d expect in a western version of this tale. “Leto’s” musicians live frugally; their indulgences are creative rather than material.
Serebrennikov, working with co-writers Michael Idov and Lily Idova, takes his time identifying key figures in the swaying, thrumming mass. For a time the locus of the loose-limbed narrative appears to be Mike (Roman Bilyk), the frontman of one of the Club’s more popular, old-guard bands, and his sweetly devoted girlfriend Natacha (Irina Starshenbaum), whose close, initially monogamous relationship again represents, as others around them note with mirth, a straitlaced inversion of expected rock-star behavior. Yet as we hang at leisure with Mike and his crowd, the film drifting near-seamlessly from backstage antics through sunny picnics and jam sessions — the title translates, not always obviously, as “summer” — he grows more rather than less elusive; “Leto” is clearly awaiting another star, which arrives in the modest form of Viktor (Teo Yoo), a quiet, slightly otherworldly young man with a knack for melody and a beguilingly peculiar turn of lyrical phrase.
Natacha, the closest thing these itching, wayward proceedings have to a guiding perspective, is the first to notice a kind of melancholic magic about Viktor, as the film gradually reorients itself around his budding stardom rather than Mike’s less obviously ascending career. Yet it never becomes a close-up portrait, preferring to move with the fevered, irregular rhythms of the group around them, sometimes zeroing in on peripheral figures as they whir near the flame and then back out. The film’s musical numbers, which alternate between diegetic stage performances and sudden flights of music-video fancy, are not so much narratively determined as random releases of accumulated energy. In the most memorable of these, an altercation between musicians and more conservative citizens on a packed train escalates into a demented, carriage-traversing singalong of Talking Heads’ “Psycho Killer,” the hitherto realist imagery disrupted with early-MTV-style cartoon flourishes.
Though Vladislav Opeliants’ (mostly) black-and-white widescreen compositions are typically pristine for a Serebrennikov film, “Leto” otherwise finds the director working in a funkier, more distracted register than one might have predicted from the soaring formalism of “The Student” and 2012’s “Betrayal.” If he has enough gutsy technical nous to pull off an aberration like “Psycho Killer,” his instincts fail him in a chintzily misjudged setpiece built around Lou Reed’s “Perfect Day,” complete with onscreen lyrics, floating angels and a drunken passerby’s dress exploding into crimson amid the monochrome, like a demented Baz Luhrmann storyboard for “Schindler’s List.”
In a film whose soundtrack staples include Bowie and T-Rex, some measure of bounding imagination is to be expected, even required — Serebrennikov’s flashes of experimentalism honor the spirit of Sergei Solovyov’s Viktor Tsoi-featuring 1987 film “Assa,” an avant-garde cinematic counterpart to its Russian rock era. “Leto” is most affecting, however, in its most stripped, simple interludes — chief among Viktor’s own poised but propulsive performances, delivered by Yoo with enough on-edge magnetism to give uninitiated viewers some sense of what he might have meant to his enduring, adoring cult.
Such scenes oxygenate what’s otherwise an exhausting deep cut of a movie, awash with disconnected strains of beauty and poetry that, for many, will never quite reach a rousing chorus. “It’s okay in the swamp, especially if you’re the number-one toad,” says Mike at one point, when asked why he has no interest in cracking America with his music. “Leto” is just as unconcerned with looking outwards, though its swamp is often spectacular.