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By James Teitelbaum | October 19, 2009

“Hipster”: such a loaded word, and one that has changed meaning over the years. Among today’s youth, a “hipster” is the latest incarnation of the self-absorbed rock poseur, a kid so self-consciously cool as to be a parody of him/herself. But back in the middle 20th century, the term – coined by Kerouac – referred to the genuinely cool, the music-obsessed rebels who had rejected conformist society and who weren’t afraid to live on the fringes: the beats, the rockers, the swingers, and even the junkies.

Hailing from Russia, the loud, sexy, colorful musical called Hipsters is most definitely a tale of the hipster of the atomic age, not the mopey fops we see today. The place is Moscow, the year is 1955. Most of the teenagers living in this repressed era are stoic and identical members of the Communist Youth Party (or Komsomol), lead by the stern Katya (Evgeniya Khirivskaya). In real-life Soviet Russia, members of the stilyagi (literally: “style hunter”) movement were often imprisoned. Their fate is less extreme on film: for both fun and duty, the CYP kids don their grey uniforms and conduct raids on juke joints full of erstwhile peers dressed in fantastic clothing. Brightly colored crinolines, silk ties, ruby red lipstick, Ray-Bans, slick pompadours, seam-backed stockings, creepers, and three-inch heels with ankle straps are the uniform of the stilyagi. While pinning the hipsters to the floor and reminding each other that “a saxophone is only one step away from a switchblade,” the antagonists kids pull out great pairs of iron scissors and snip ties from the stilyagi men, give the girls rat’s nest hairdos, and slice stockings right up the seams. Were this an American film, the aggressors might pull out knives or blunt weapons, but this is a musical fantasy; that the hipsters are having their expensive glad rags shredded is violence enough. The only crimes here are fashion crimes.

It is a drag to see these great threads desecrated, especially since the kids wearing them seem like a decent bunch; they’re just out for a good time. But a good time is not what the staunch Communist state has in mind for tomorrow’s workers. Our titular protagonists come from the conformist families of blue-collar workers. They’re the sons and daughters of washerwomen, ditch-diggers, and seamstresses. The legions of good communist workers toil in the fields and factories, clad in blue-grey like so many mailmen, as the hipsters dare to smile, to be happy, and to wear clothes crafted for them by a secret custom tailor. The sullen people of Moscow are all disgusted with the showy hipsters walking around in their neon pink and yellow clothing, and the families of the hipsters are scorned by the townsfolk. One hipster’s dad tells him: “kowtowing to Western ideals is a crime punishable by ten years”. Consider that in communist Russia during the middle of the Cold War, it was considered deeply offensive for the new generation to walk around looking like some sort of American. These daring young lads and lasses resemble exaggerated caricatures of Eddie Cochran or Wanda Jackson more than anything else, but their rebellion of candy-colored costumes is rather serious business; this is a way of life for them and is not something easily given up – nor is admission into their circle easily earned.

One of Katya’s cronies, a boy named Mels (Anton Shagin; Mels is an acronym for Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin, by the way), falls for a hipster named Polly (Oksana Akinshina) during a raid. Naturally, he has to turn traitor and infiltrate Polly’s circle to get close to her. Her friends, as cliquish as they may seem on the outside, are a welcoming bunch. After giving Mels a bit of grief over his early attempts to dress “cool,” he is allowed into the scene.

Thus we have what amounts to a standard teen film, and indeed it recycles the standard plots: nerdy boy must win girl’s heart by getting his act together, rival youth factions battle until the mean ones are vanquished, and teenager must go through rites of passage and must eventually confront adulthood. This material is all here, and it offers few surprises.

That said, the first two-thirds of this film has an infectious energy to it that makes it hard not to like, no matter how tired its story and characters may be. However, almost any film that jumps out of the gate full-speed ahead will have trouble maintaining that momentum. The last forty minutes of Hipsters really starts to drag, as the story of Mels and Polly takes a darker turn. And I definitely mean “darker” (see it). The songs seem to run out (there are fewer towards the end), and the spunk fades fast. After Mels is visited by Fred (Maksim Matveev), once the leader of the stilyagi, but now a proper grown-up businessman, he must decide if his lifestyle is an artifact of youth, or if it is truly an expression of something within that cannot be denied.

Additionally, “Hipsters” can be viewed as a Russian doppelganger to “Grease,” with the boy and girl leads swapping social roles – she’s the rebel in this case, and he’s the square who steps up to win her. Transposing the story to Communist Russia is brilliant, however, and we can easily believe that the two films are happening concurrently on opposite sides of the globe. In “Hipsters,” however, the story goes on to show us what happens after the couple are together for a while, and that may be its mistake. This is where things start to drag.

The film is filled with spirited performances from all of the leads (all debut actors for the kids, and all well-loved veterans of Russian cinema for the adult characters). Truth be told, the characters themselves are fairly stock: the cool leader of the clique, the fat guy, the strange guy, the trophy girl, the understanding parent, the not-so-understanding parent, but they are all played convincingly.

However, what makes “Hipsters” special are several things: amazing production design, exceptional costumes, gorgeous women, flashy cinematography, and terrific songs. The brassy period-homages are solidly composed and tightly performed, and every one of them advances the story or the characters in important ways. Rousing swingin’ jazz arrangements are augmented with local touches such as accordion. That the music even exists is, in itself, is a small miracle. A Russian musical? Really?

Believe it.

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