SIFF Review: Hipsters: It's Hard Being Hip in the U.S.S.R.

West Side Story, sidestep aside. There's a new star-crossed song and dance spectacle on the block -- the Eastern Bloc, that is -- Russia's east side story, Hipsters. And these hipsters aren't akin to the latte-sipping, faux-hawked youth in skinny jeans tweeting next to you. Nor are they like the zoot-suited American hipsters jivin' to jazz in the 1940s -- well, not exactly.

It's a fine evening for a fair in Moscow in 1955 when Hipsters begins. The twinkly landscape of cheery children looks ideal until, in the distance, a drab army advances. Uniformed in shapeless grey suits, they pause on a bridge while their leader, Katya, commands, "Give me the instrument," and an underling hands her a pair of scissors. They follow her to a tent and spy their adversaries. A riot of color, flouncy skirts, and pompadoured, boogie-woogieing teens assault their eyes: the hipsters. Then the massacre begins -- the fashion massacre, that is. The "Squares" (members of the Communist Student League) show no mercy as they rip apart their pin-striped pants, snip off their pompadour curls, cut up their dresses, and otherwise sabotage their style. It's a patriotic duty -- punishing those who kowtow to Western ideology. As Katya quips, "every hipster's a potential criminal" and "a saxophone is a step away from a switchblade." Fellow commie Mels (a Russian Joseph Gordon-Levitt) agrees with her until during the melee he meets bouncy, blond-curled "Good Time" Polly (a Russian Michelle Williams) and falls in love. He abandons his square comrades and crosses over to the hip side. His first step is buying a floral tie from a man selling them from beneath his overcoat in an alley.

After his hipster makeover Mels shows up on Broadway, the hipster hood, where they accept him and give him an Americanized moniker: "Mel." Boris is "Bob," Polza is "Polly." Anything American, especially American jazz, is cool. Never mind that their interpretation of U.S. hipsters is rather trippy and cartoonish. That's a large part of the film's visual panache. Peacock blue, emerald green, yellow ... all together in one outfit. If parrots were people and wore clothes instead of feathers, they'd look like director Valery Todorovsky's hipsters. Everything's also shot with a soft, glam glow that adds to the old-school MGM musical vibe, like when Mels plays sax with the imaginary jazz man in the radio against a New York City skyline. All of this looks even more lovely when contrasted with the monochromatic monotony of their "square" surroundings.

And yes, Hipsters is a musical. Mels frequently bursts into song, but so do the hipster gals, as when a trio of them perform the Andrews Sisters-esque "He Doesn't Need an American Wife," about USA-bound hipster Fred. Then there's Mels' father huskily crooning about "a man and his cat" waiting for "a magic powder" that will cure their loneliness. Hmm ... magic powder? It doesn't make sense but it's entertaining! Katya also delivers a similarly captivating yet strange communist gangsta rap. And dancing? There's plenty of it. Though stiff and slightly off-tempo, it's reminiscent of SNL's "wild and crazy guys" (Steve Martin and Dan Aykroyd). Or a gorilla having a seizure. (But I'm no boogie-woogie expert.)

Yet the wackiness works. Even the oddly translated dialogue adds to its surreal charm: "The keys to my pad, I will loan you." Well, it works until the last half hour when the film wanders off into another movie. A little off-kilter, very kooky, and a lot of fun, Hipsters is a wild and crazy song and dance spectacle worth seeing.

Grade: B

Movie & TV Awards 2018