Here's something you don't see here in the US every day- a Russian musical! Hipsters, or its original Russian title Stiilyagi takes place during 1955 in Moscow. Mels (Anton Shagin) is a member of the Komsomol (Communist Youth League), where activities include upholding the Communist party's values. As the movie begins, he is out with comrades to break up an underground party of youths known as hipsters, who celebrate American jazz culture by dressing in bright colors and dancing to music which was prohibited in Russia.
Upon seeing the party however, Mels becomes fascinated by the music and dancing, and also catches the eye of Polya (Oksana Akinshina) and wants to be a part of their scene. He soon learns the 'passwords' needed to get into the speakeasy-like parties, find outlets for brightly-colored clothes, learns how to jazz-dance and eventually obtains a saxophone through a "connection". There's a scene that I would describe as purely magical, where he teaches himself to play it while listening to a distant broadcast of George Gershwin's "Summertime" on Voice of America. As he picks up the notes, an accompanying saxophonist appears in the room to play along with him, and the background transforms into New York City.
Mels then joins a jazz band playing and singing at the parties, and connects with his love Polya. As happens in most movies, a few conflicts arise including Mels having to answer to his Komsomol comrades for becoming part of what he was supposed to prevent, but it all ends in a sequence which I can only say is incredible, without spoiling it for you.
Although Hipsters is not based on a true story, the "scene" depicted here really was taken up by many young people in Russia during that time as a way of rebelling against the rules and referring to the status quo as "squares". An interesting fact-based part of this movie is that American jazz and pop records, illegal in Russia, were smuggled into the country and reproduced using a turntable with the tone arm connected to a record-cutter, with the music recorded onto discarded x-rays from a doctor's office!
There are several musical numbers, both as songs performed by the band at the parties with the audience dancing along, and characters simply breaking into song during dialogue scenes, which is one thing I love about musicals. There is lots of quick cutting during these, which may not be faithful to the styles of 1955 but still work well. As all spoken and sung words are in Russian, English subtitles at the bottom of the screen provide a translation, with literal renderings of the song lyrics which don't come out as well lyrically as they do in their native language, sort of how English subtitles appear in operas.
Hipsters is presented in 2.35 anamorphic widescreen, and although the movie is given a reasonably high bitrate on the dual-layer disc the overall picture quality is notably sub-par. The resolution appeared similar to that of a 4x3 letterboxed transfer zoomed on my 16x9 screen, so much so that I double-checked to make sure that this was not actually the case. Aliasing is prevalent not only in the movie, but also in the video-generated English subtitles which are overlaid directly on the picture (they are not player-generated and cannot be turned off.) This is a shame as the movie is beautifully shot, and would probably look phenomenal on a proper Blu-Ray transfer. The film's intended color scheme still comes through however- the "hipsters'" brightly-colored outfits effectively contrast against the drab monochromatic colors worn by the other characters as well as the unremarkably-colored surroundings.
As this is a musical, sound plays an important part. While the overall fidelity is excellent, there are a few flaws here as well. Firstly, Hipsters was originally mixed in Dolby Digital EX, that is discrete 5.1 with a matrixed center rear channel, but only the 2-channel Pro-Logic mix is included on this DVD. While that still could have been adequate, the left and right channels are reversed- there are several directional effects including some instances of panned dialogue which come from the opposite side of the screen the action is occurring on. Again, I double-checked to make sure this was not a mistake on my end.
No extras of any sort are included.
I felt that Hipsters was a fantastic film and worthy viewing for those who love either musicals or history. It certainly shows a side of Russian culture rarely seen over here. I only wish that the presentation quality here could at least have met the potential of the standard DVD format. It says a lot however that I enjoyed it this much even with the sub-par presentation.
Jesse Skeen is a life-long obsessive media collector (with an unhealthy preoccupation with obsolete and failed formats) and former theater film projectionist. He enjoys watching movies and strives for presenting them perfectly, but lacks the talent to make his own.