Avant-garde and politically persecuted Russian director, Kirill Serebrennikov, has made a glowing black and white tribute to the Soviet summer (“leto”) of rock and roll amid the 1980s formation of bands like Kino and Zoopark. In Leningrad, the underground rock scene is burgeoning ahead of the Perestroika reconstruction, while fans and artists smuggle in LP’s by Lou Reed and David Bowie past the Iron Curtain. This musical biopic collides a romantic ode to summer against a relevant backdrop of censorship, contemporary musical protest in Russia, and the important influence of American and British rock music in countercultural youth movements.
This punky Soviet history is based on the early years of pop icon Viktor Tsoï and his legendary band Kino. In the early 1980s, he befriends the charismatic singer of the band Zoopark, who has managed to pick up rare records by Blondie and T. Rex. They decide to shake things up with their own performances, but for now their young audience is allowed only to move their feet to the rhythm. With humour and guts, the band members tackle censorship and pursue a wanderlust desire for freedom of expression amidst a hardening political climate.
In lush black-and-white, Leto captures the energy of a long summer: making music together in cramped apartments and cautious rebellion, love triangles, and surrealistic interludes of Soviet train passengers singing along to "Psycho Killer" by Talking Heads.
This film has been surrounded by controversy as filmmmaker, Kirill Serebrennikov (The Student), was placed under arrest at the end of filming Leto under allegations of financial fraud with the state-run theater he directs. Human rights lawyers and censorship activists worldwide have denounced these as fabricated and politically-charged, culminating from multiple freedom of expression battles with the current Russian leadership who have denounced his work as taboo and a thinly veiled criticism of the Putin regime. Serebrennikov was still able to finish the editing of Leto at home under house arrest and missed the film's debut at the Cannes Film Festival, much to the outrage of the global cinema community. Under house arrest he was also able to direct multiple theater and opera productions through the exchange of USB drives with visitors. He was recently released from house arrest in April, though his legal battles continue.