The debut of Russian rock ’n’ roll saga “Tsoi,” based on the life of the iconic rebel singer-songwriter Viktor Tsoi, who died in 1990, has triggered a rights dispute with the performer’s heirs over the use of his name and image.
The Warsaw Film Festival is scheduled to screen “Tsoi” in its international competition on Oct. 15, but Sophia Mikulinski, who represents the heirs and family of Viktor Tsoi, says a screening would be in “direct violation of the [copyright] law applicable on the territory of the European Union.”
An Oct. 1 letter seen by Variety, addressed to the Warsaw Film Festival from Alexander Tsoi, the rock star’s son and heir, demanded that the fest cancel its screening, stating the film was “created without obtaining legally binding consents to use the name and image of the famous musician.”
Warsaw plans to screen the film regardless of the dispute, says fest director Stefan Laudyn. “Not everyone was always happy with the films we have been showing at the Warsaw Film Festival,” he said.
“In my three decades as the festival director,” he added, “we had interventions by politicians, officials, diplomats, corporations…as long as there is no court decision that the film cannot be shown to the public, and after checking its status with the producer of the film, I believe we have the right to show it.”
Responding to the rights dispute, Polina Demina, a representative for producer Rock Films, told Variety, “We did not violate any laws or regulations of the Russian Federation.”
“The movie expresses, and not for the first time, the director’s respect for Victor Tsoi, whom [director] Alexey Uchitel had known personally and who has so far become the subject of several of his documentaries,” Demina added.
The company acknowledges that the film “makes use of a small share of documentary footage with Victor Tsoi that was originally shot by Alexey Uchitel” but asserts that the Tsoi family “have never owned any rights to this footage.”
The Tsoi estate first learned of the production in 2017 and asked to see the script while considering whether to grant the filmmakers the rights to use the rocker’s name and image, they say. But the heirs found the script, which follows Tsoi’s widow, son, mistress and producer on a road trip to deliver his coffin to Leningrad, objectionable, says Mikulinski.
The family refused to grant the rights, she says, and suggested the director make the film without referring to Tsoi by name. When it finished production, with Tsoi clearly identified, they felt they had to take action, Mikulinski says.
Rock Films agreed to replace Tsoi’s music with that of other artists, using songs by Faustas Latenas, but did not adopt the other changes sought by Tsoi’s estate. The film’s central plot line, cast in road movie form, is driven by the aftermath of the rock star’s fatal car crash in Latvia and it stars Evgeniy Tsyganov, Mariana Spivak, Paulina Andreeva and Igor Vernik. Uchitel co-wrote the film with Alexandr Gonorovskiy and Savva Minaev.
Tsoi, the founder and front man of the band Kino, “has made an inestimable contribution to the modern Russian culture,” says Mikulinski. He was also the central figure in 2018 film “Leto” (“Summer”) by Kirill Serebrennikov, a dissident filmmaker who finished the feature while under house arrest on charges widely believed to be trumped up for political reasons.
“People all over the world and especially those from the former USSR consider Viktor Tsoi a cult figure,” Mikulinski added. “His music has become an anthem of freedom and changes.” Some 30 years after his death at age 28, Tsoi’s song “Khochu Peremen” (Changes) has been sung by protesters in the streets of Minsk, and was sung in Moscow by demonstrators opposing Russian leader Vladimir Putin.