Moscow, 1955, and a craze is sweeping the youth of the city, transforming them into so-called hipsters thanks to their newfound love of American jazz music and a fashion in clothes that is vividly coloured compared to the drabness of the Communist world around them. But in such a conformist state, there is bound to be a backlash, and so it is that gangs of Party members track down the hideouts where the hipsters love to listen to the jazz and dance the nights away, and armed with scissors proceed to cut up their loud garments and chop off their quiffs (for the boys) and curls (for the girls). However, one young Party member, Mels (Anton Shagin), finds himself intrigued...
Hipsters, or Stilyagi as it was originally called (literally, the style-obsessed) was not some Western takedown of beard-grooming, avocado-consuming younger folk, but something from Russia, a musical that harked back to the days of totalitarianism and what happened when the younger generation tried to express themselves within those constraints. What started out as an exuberant celebration of innocent rebellion became more serious as it went along, ending with the fun well and truly over either because of family pressures, the authorities clamping down, or simply thanks to the participants growing older and finding they had increasing responsibilities to cope with.
Mels, from his place on one side of the equation, is sufficiently captivated by one of the female hipsters, Polly (Oksana Akinshina, best known as the title character in Lilya 4-Ever), to switch allegiances and despite initial scepticism from the group, cultivates his own pompadour and purchases winkle-pickers and a checked suit, plus colourful tie which convinces them that he really means it. Shagin had a rabbit in the headlights quality to his performance that made you worry he was getting in over his head, an innocent who wanted to dance to the jazz (mostly of the swing variety) but has not thought through the ramifications of what the rest of society think about him.
If you have ever tried a spot of rebellion yourself you may sympathise with how Mels and his new friends are now ostracised for the crime of not trying to be like everyone else for the rest of their lives, though director Valeriy Todorovskiy was preoccupied with showing how hard this is for those who choose not to conform, to the extent that you wonder why anyone bothers and instead simply opts for the quiet life lest they be scapegoated for an indefinite period. We are in no doubt of the injustice of this, but additionally how the Communists' obsession with an ordered society gave rise to an equal preoccupation with examining every one of their citizens' lives in extreme detail to make sure they were not stepping out of line, a line that was almost arbitrarily drawn and moving to catch out the unwary.
Katya (Evgenia Brik) was the head of the Party chapter who harboured a crush on Mels, or Mel as he is rechristened (the dropped S is significant), but once spurned takes out her disappointment with terrible fury. Along the way other hipsters are lost to various incidents, be that parental pressure to get a job and forget their friends, or getting picked up by the secret police for trying to buy a Charlie Parker album, which may sound ridiculous except the film's milieu was so convincing that you could believe something so petty and minor would lead to imprisonment and who knows what kind of torture. This rather scathing look at Russia's past seemed out of character with the prevailing mood of the twenty-first century as far as we in the West could figure out, but gave you optimism that there were those in that nation who were far more open-minded than the impression we had of their character had led us to believe - there was even a gay character in there, and the joyous finale despite all the misery did charm. The music was not exactly classic, and the Russian dourness was in evidence, but Hipsters was diverting.