What do you remember about the Cold War? I remember hearing about people standing in long lines for bread, the constant threat of the KGB and the comedy of Yakov Smirnoff. As Americans, we didn’t get much accurate information about what was going on in the Soviet Union. We were told that people were oppressed and that communism was very bad. But we didn’t really know why. Though it’s set in the post World War II Soviet Union, “Hipsters” sheds some light on what life was like for Russians the entire time they lived under communist rule. It also throws in some song and dance numbers to make light of it all. It’s the Russian “Swing Kids” complete with Russia’s own version of Frank Whaley.
Mels (Anton Shagin) is the outsider who quits the KGB Youth to join up with a happy-go-lucky group of jazz enthusiasts known as the Hipsters. Of course, a girl is involved. Her name is Polly and she’s brash and beautiful. But Mels is also enamored with the bright clothes, pompadours and the dancing.
His KBG Comrade, Katya, is horrified to see Mels leaving the fold and flirting with what she considers to be the dark side. What’s more, the Hipsters antics are actually against the law. “Kowtowing to Western Ideology is a crime punishable for up to 10 years in prison,” Katya reminds Mels. As result, the Hipsters lead an underground life, dancing in secret halls, buying their clothes on the black market and bootlegging jazz records onto x-rays. Apparently, these things really did happen. Not the spontaneous musical numbers, of course, but all the other stuff.
And that’s what’s so fascinating about “Hipsters”. The movie doesn’t kowtow to a Western audience. It expects you to dive right in and keep up. Many Americans will probably miss some of the cultural references (I know I did). Some of the subtitles sound a little paraphrased and jokes may be lost in the translation. But there is still plenty to enjoy even for people without a thorough understanding of the political climate in 1955 Moscow. The musical numbers are fun and interesting and the costumes are fabulous. The choreography is reminiscent of a Baz Lurhmann film but without all that nausea-inducing camera work.
There are also a few parallels to familiar American stories, which may draw in a Western audience. The prohibition on dancing and music brings to mind the reactionary restrictions of “Footloose.” And of course there’s a learning-to-dance montage. At one point, a Hipster named Fred (they all adopt American names) must cut his hair and take a job that his diplomat father has set up for him in America. He leaves on a plane with all the enthusiasm of Berger shipping off to Vietnam in “Hair.” The last number in the film also recalls the ending to the film version of “Hair” as Hipsters throughout the ages convene en masse to find solidarity in their individuality, man.
Some of these familiar elements may feel a little hackneyed. In addition, the film goes on just a little too long. But the message is clear. The communists hated American ideology because they thought it represented a sense of superiority. Katya tells Mels that she resists the Hipster lifestyle because she doesn’t “like to be better than everyone else”. But Mels argues, “It’s cool to be different”. Granted, being different like everyone else isn’t exactly originality. But the freedom to be part of any group you choose is what America was founded on. Granted, we don’t always adhere to that principal. (It’s interesting how many pro-America folk are anti-free thinking). But the intent is there. The Soviet government saw that as the root of the problem. That’s why America saw communism as such a threat. Essentially, “Hipsters” is an all-singing, all-dancing lesson in philosophical opposition.