As Britain’s weekend papers trumpeted the twenty year anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, Sheffield Doc/Fest screened two films dedicated to the idea that the earliest blows to the Iron Curtain, and perhaps those that fundamentally caused the most damage, were delivered by Western pop culture. One of these films is a structurally innovative blending of personal experience and communal fantasia that blurs the lines between nonfiction and narrative filmmaking to powerfully convey a global-political truth mutated by memory. The other is a well meaning but hopelessly conventional, superficial and even hokey ode to superfandom that ignores real questions about the eventual consequences of the cultural revolution it portrays. Can you guess which of these two films is premiering on American public television on Monday?
That would be How the Beatles Rocked the Kremlin, directed by Leslie Woodhead. Woodhead serendipitously filmed The Beatles playing an early show at Liverpool’s Cavern Club, and later spent decades making films about Russia and other socialist experiments throughout the world. Here the filmmaker brings these two concerns together in telling, as an early bit of narration brands it, “the untold story of how The Beatles helped to destroy communism.” If the film hardly makes a concrete argument to that end, it does at least offer a fluffy examination of the process by which the Fab Four’s tunes seeped into the Soviet state (through bootlegs etched onto Xray films transformed into flexidisks, and/or via Radio Luxembourg), what the most popular songs (such as — wait for it — “Back in the USSR”) meant to wannabe teenage Russian rebels of the 1960s, and how post-Soviet fans to this day pay The Beatles back for bringing on a mass awakening to the notion of pay-to-play consumption of culture. Much fawning over present-day burnt out memorabilia collectors and unlistenable Beatles tribute bands ensues.
At one point, Woodhead films a Russian rock journalist explaining that The Beatles were a hit amongst Russian youth because official Soviet sanctioned music, fashion and culture were “totally square … there [was] nothing sexy, funny, funky about it.” This is sadly an apt critique for Woodhead’s film as well, particularly when seen in the context of a festival that goes out of its way to program nonfiction films that test formal boundaries and even gives an award annually for innovation. Not only does Kremlin fit the template of the “totally square” public television-funded, talking-head-heavy doc to the letter, but it’s sorely lacking the kind of flippant/funny/sexy ambiguity and attitude that it cites as the source of The Beatles’ power and appeal.
The same cannot be said for the other film Doc/Fest film tackling the insidious effect of the culture industry on the Soviet state, Disco and Atomic War. I’ve seen this film several times and have written about it previously, but each time I watch it new formal layers — and new jokes — are revealed. A deadpan-comic document of how filmmaker Jaak Kilmi and other grade schoolers in early-80s Estonia had their lives altered by illegally-intercepted Finnish TV broadcasts of Western hallmarks like Dallas, disco dance shows and the original Emmanuelle, Disco’s great gift is a total deconstruction of the notion of “soft power” — essentially, a nation's attempt to assert and maintain its dominance through not violent but viral means, including media and public relations. Making brilliant use of stock from the Russian Film Archive and enhancing the true story with witty, visually striking and impeccably cast staged scenes (it took me a second viewing to be able to confirm that some of the staged material weren’t Kilmi family home movies), Disco convinces that when the Northern Estonians became obsessed with the question of who shot J.R., their obsession traveled South through visiting relatives, and so went the nation. It’s also quick to poke fun at cultural worship: Disco and Atomic War boldly and broadly equates the Finnish TV premiere of Emmanuelle with a Cold War-busting bomb going off in Estonia, but not without tongue firmly planted in cheek.
A commenter on the website for the British documentary organization the Frontline Club complains that How the Beatles Rocked Kremlin is “the most capitalist propaganda film I have ever seen.” This may be a bit of an overstatement, but the extent to which Woodhead simplifies the notion of soft power, flattening a complex set of contradictions and consequences into one great cheer for the “liberating” effect of Western consumer culture, is striking. Doc/Fest perhaps ill-advisedly paired Woodhead’s feature with Caught in the Mist, a personal diary short by Joseph Matthews in which the filmmaker, whose Irish Socialist grandparents had a profound influence on his upbringing, visits Moscow for the first time and finds contemporary Russians who bitterly relate memories of the Soviet state, and yet are openly nostalgic for Communist control. Joseph spends a large chunk of time with a middle-aged concrete factory foreman, who invites him to have illicit cocktails in his office and admits, “In 1992, I heard Elton John for the first time. I completely fell in love.”
At first, the foreman gushes over Western rock and rails against the Brezhnevian communism that made the consumption of Deep Purple records a serious offense, but then admits that his own political views are moving towards Communist ideals as Moscow decays around him. Later, a former comrade who Joseph meets at a celebration of Lenin also tries to get the filmmaker to “drown sorrows” in daytime drinking. “I have no faith in government,” he says. “Society is falling apart, and they do nothing as it explodes.”
The slow seep of Western pop culture may have cumulatively convinced the people of the USSR that they could no longer live without the freedom to make (and pay for) their own cultural decisions — essentially realizing the worst nightmares of Soviet propaganda — but Western pop culture also promises a version of the world, and extreme emotions that go with it, that cannot exist in any sort of literal sense for most people. Atomic War tells us that young Jaak watched Dallas and fell in love with an America where “everyone drinks whiskey on the rocks and works in skyscrapers,” but it also acknowledges that all was not right in the former USSR when the former Soviets technically had the freedom to do the same.
Emmanuelle may have sparked an Estonian baby boom and made the Russian airwaves a safe space for softcore, but the final moments of Disco indicate that the people left behind in the fall of the Soviet Union may now be back at square one –– rock n’ roll and erotic drama may have teased the Soviet populace out of isolation, but Putin and the oligarchs were waiting in the open air. What Disco and Mist acknowledge that Kremlin never does, is the absurdity, futility, and sheer childishness of the idea that the freedom to consume Western culture like Dallas and A Day in the Life could equate to any meaningfully improved socio-political freedom. In Kremlin, Putin’s longtime national security adviser Sergei Ivanov chuckles over his own youthful Beatles obsession. Meanwhile, Moscow explodes.