It’s a typical rock ‘n’ roll story: a seasoned musician with a pretty young girlfriend is threatened by a youthful rival who’s not only better-looking but a better songwriter. That’s the premise of Kirill Serebrennikov’s Leto (which translates to Summer), which chronicles a musical battleground of Russian rock that is all but unknown to American audiences. Despite the fascinating real-life backdrop of a pre-Perestroika pop underground, much of this promising biopic is as dreary as a Soviet breadline.

Leto opens in early ‘80s Leningrad with veteran rocker Mike (Roma Zver) and his band performing their lyrically irreverent (but musically tame) “(You’re A) Scum” for an enthusiastic audience. Too enthusiastic for a staid venue that looks like a dilapidated opera house. When Mike’s fiancée Natasha (Irina Starshenbaum) holds up a harmless, hand-drawn heart sign from her nosebleed seat, management makes her put it away. This is the kind of repression Soviet youth faced at concerts, and the mostly black-and-white cinematography reinforces the sense that life under communism was terribly grey.

Hanging out at the beach, Mike and Natasha meet Viktor (Teo Yoo), a younger musician with fresh, original songs and a more punk-like approach than Mike’s fairly ordinary hard rock. Viktor and Natasha fall in love, and Mike seems to have his revenge when he dismisses the competition’s pogo-ready tempos in favor of more conventional arrangements.

There are moments of dry humor here. When Viktor meets with the committee that books rock concerts, officials are skeptical, but muse that, “Under the influence of ideologically stronger bands, they will develop a conscience.” But for the most part, the slow-moving love triangle and creative tensions fail to come alive.

Yet when Serebrennikov, a theater and film director who has a reputation for the avant garde, finally lets loose, the movie comes alive. The musicians and their entourage share a fateful train ride in which a spiky-haired punk starts singing Talking Heads’ “Psycho Killer” and the screen is suddenly transformed with hand-scrawled animation on top of the live action. It’s not a new effect; similar animation can be seen anywhere from silent masterpieces like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari to the graphic novel adaptation Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. But for a few scenes, Leto taps this to convey the magic that music brought to these dreary lives, and as older passengers start singing along with the young upstarts, it’s an infectious sight that demonstrates the power of pop.

Unfortunately, you have to wade through a lot of prosaic passages to get to such vibrancy, and other clever elements are less successful. A character called simply The Skeptic (Aleksandr Kuznetsov) breaks into these creative outbursts with a hand-held card that reads, “This didn’t happen.” Of course it didn’t; what do you take us for, anyway?

For about 15 minutes of its over-two-hour running time, Leto is exciting cinema. Perhaps the dominant mood of tedium is supposed to convey state oppression, occasionally revealing the vital artistic statement ready to burst out of the people if only they were set free. Which makes the film work as political commentary more than it works as entertainment.

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