If you don’t count Wednesday night’s screening of “Black Panther” on the beach, the most fun to be had watching movies at this year’s Cannes Film Festival might well have come early in Russian director Kirill Serebrennikov’s “Leto,” when a train full of disaffected young musicians terrorize their more sedate passengers with a full-throated version of the Talking Heads’ “Psycho Killer.”
Or 40 minutes or so later, when a busload of commuters breaks into Iggy Pop’s “The Passenger.”
Like the film itself, those sequences are energetic, messy, a little surreal and wholly enjoyable, a tribute to the power of rock ‘n’ roll to shake things up while also providing good fun.
“Leto,” which premiered on Wednesday night and screened for the press on Thursday morning, is the wildest and most bracing film to screen in the main competition so far this year. Part fond remembrance of an early-’80s Leningrad rock scene and part glam-rock fever dream, “Leto” asks an audience to surrender to excess and at times to silliness, and it richly rewards them for doing so.
Serebrennikov is one of two main-competition directors who is not allowed by authorities in his home country to come to the festival, the other being Iran’s Jafar Panahi. He has been under house arrest for almost a year on fraud accusations, though his supporters say it’s a trumped-up charge by a Russian government that wants to punish him for his art.
There’s a current of anti-government sentiment running through “Leto” in the way its musicians can’t play the government-supported Leningrad Music Club until their lyrics have been approved by a stern censor who tells them, “Soviet rock musicians must find all that’s good in humanity.” When they do play, stern guards watch over the audience to make sure they don’t stand up, move or do anything but applaud politely.
But that’s not the focus of the film, which is based on the life of Soviet rock musician Viktor Tsoi, who was a legendary figure in his home country but is largely unknown outside Russia. To those who aren’t familiar with Tsoi’s music, “Leto” works as a more universal story of striving and of rock ‘n’ roll dreams.
Tsoi, played by Tee Yoo, is introduced as he makes a pilgrimage to see established local musician Mike (Roman Bilyk), the leader of a band and a community of misfits whose idols are David Bowie, Lou Reed and T-Rex’s Marc Bolan. They pay lip service to punk music, but they’re really glam-rockers at heart.
Serebrennikov doesn’t go full glam with the film, though. For the most part, “Leto” is shot in lustrous black and white that can seem gritty at times but more often turns the film into a rock ‘n’ roll reverie, a fever dream born of “Aladdin Sane” and “The Velvet Underground and Nico” (and occasionally accompanied by onscreen animation in a number of terrific fantasy sequences).
Tee Yoo, a Korean actor who learned Russian phonetically for the film, is suitably enigmatic as the gifted man at the center of a dizzying movement, while Bilyk is touching as the young rebel trying to adjust to the fact that he’s become an elder statesman of sorts.
At heart, this is a story of musicians who are dealing with several layers of frustration — cultural, artistic, personal — but manage to break through, one way or another. There’s a love triangle of sorts, as Viktor flirts with and falls for Mike’s wife, Natasha (a quietly compelling Irina Stashenbaum), but the heart of the film is in the songs, both Tsoi’s own music and Western tunes like “Psycho Killer,” Iggy Pop’s “The Passenger” (used in a priceless bus sequence) and a ghostly, hallucinatory version of the hit Bowie gave to Mott the Hoople, “All the Young Dudes.”
A mocking line from that last song essentially serves as the theme of this film: “Oh man, I need TV when I got T-Rex?” These people didn’t need Soviet TV, they did have T-Rex, and for a while it was glorious — though as the end of the film points out the ones among them who died young, the glory is tinged with deep melancholy.
Like rock ‘n’ roll itself, “Leto” aims to be great and doesn’t worry about being messy. Unlike anything else at Cannes so far this year, it cranks the dial to 11 and is all the better for it.