“Leto” is the Russian word for “summer,” and the movie by that name takes place in the bloom and heat of an underground revolution. The movie’s a character study of a scene, the Soviet rock demimonde of the early 1980s, with characters based on real people and a deep sense of inside baseball. Audiences who already know the names, places, and songs will have a bighead start over newcomers; there are English subtitles, but a great deal goes untranslated.
When the movie opens, the pillars and crossbeams of the USSR’s police state are still in place, but the foundation is showing cracks. Rock concerts are overseen by zealous cultural authorities, who OK the bands and forbid young fans from doing anything more than tapping their feet. The big star in this small pond is Mike Naumenko (Roman Bilyk), who leads the zeitgeist group Zoopark, and writes lyrics that bristle with mordant satire. Mike has learned a lot from Dylan, Bowie, and Lou Reed in songwriting and attitude. He also seems aware that his moment may be about to pass.
The script is based on a memoir by Naumenko’s widow, Natalya, who’s played with intelligent fire by Irina Starshenbaum. The movie’s Natalia is lovingly loyal to her rock star husband but not above keeping her options open, and the appearance on the scene of a young musician named Victor Tsoi (Teo Yoo) acts on the couple as a lightning bolt. Mike sees a natural, a young rock ’n’ roller with a songwriting gift superior to his own. Natalia just sees a boy she can’t stop fantasizing about kissing.
Director Kirill Serebrennikov sets this romantic triangle in a complex, encyclopedic setting. “Leto” has been shot in a rich wide-screen black-and-white, with blurts of color whenever we see from the 16mm point of view of a Zoopark documentarian. There are characters named Punk (Aleksandr Gorchilin) and Skeptic (Aleksandr Kuznetsov), the former based on Russian punk pioneer Andrei “Pig” Panov, and the latter an all-purpose theoretician who addresses the camera and leads the movie into wild music-video fantasias — the film stock scratched up into antic animations — before reminding us that “this didn’t really happen.”
In those sequences, with actors and extras singing along to period chestnuts like Talking Heads’ “Psycho Killer,” Iggy Pop’s “The Passenger,” and Lou Reed’s “Perfect Day,” “Leto” suggests a frisky cross between “A Hard Day’s Night” and “Trainspotting” minus the heroin. Elsewhere, the movie stays arguably too close to the minutiae and emotions of its setting; we get the flavor of a rich cultural movement but not the wider frame or connective tissue that would allow an outsider to make full sense of it.
At the end of “Leto,” the birth and death years for both Tsoi and Naumenko flash across the screen; the former was killed in a 1990 car crash and the latter died in 1991 of a cerebral hemorrhage. They were idolized by a generation of Soviet youth and were instrumental to that generation’s concept of rebellion — a concept that found itself realized in heady, unexpected ways only a few years later. Little of this comes through in the film, which is about the mayfly moment and three people at its center. For those who don’t have enough information to connect the dots, that may not be enough. Maybe you had to be there, but it’s a movie’s job to take us, and this one gets only partway.
★ ★ ½
Directed by Kirill Serebrennikov. Written by Mikhail Idov, Lili Idova, Ivan Kapitanov, and Serebrennikov; based on a memoir by Natalya Naumenko. Starring Roman Bilyk, Teo Yoo, Irina Starshenbaum. At the Brattle. 126 minutes. Unrated (as R: language, brief nudity, alcohol, and drugs). In Russian, with subtitles.