East Side Story
When Lenin declared cinema the most important art, he was thinking of anti-czarist workers occupying the Odessa Steps in Battleship Potemkin, not a Black Sea chorus of top-hatted tapdancers. As we learn in East Side Story, a feature documentary, it was Lenin's next-in-line, Joseph Stalin, who first spoke up for the film musical.
Maxim Gorky, the Soviet People's writer, coaxed his fearless leader to take a look at Russia's first venture into song and dance, the Hollywoodish The Jolly Fellows (1934). Censors had banned it, but Gorky fancied it, and Stalin did too, taking to the silly songs and the music-hall pratfalls of a cross-eyed Ben Turpin-looking protagonist.
Even as he murdered millions of his citizenry, Stalin prescribed additional musicals, but with an overtly Communist bent: 100% dancing, 100% singing, and 100% Socialist Realism. These included Volga Volga (1938), happy Soviet peasantry rolling on the river, Tractor Drivers (1939),cheery Soviet peasantry slashing wheat, and the amazingly titled The Swineherd and the Shepherd (194l), in which a barefooted Soviet Cinderella sings as she feeds a chipper army of squealing pigs.
The Jolly Fellows and Volga Volga (Stalin watched that one more than a hundred times) turned director Grigori Alexandrov, into the regime's favorite "auteur," though his detractors (undoubtedly secret Trotskyites) called him "the stupidest man in Soviet cinema." The socialist-realist musicals also made matinee stars out of their perpetual heroines, Lyubov Orlova (the city proletariat) and Marina Ladynina (the country girl) both of whom, writes a Soviet historian, were "blonde, had dazzling white teeth, and a simple, artless life-syle."
When Stalin died of a heart attack in 1953, the Soviet musical also succumbed on the pyre. Kruschev didn't approve of them, nor did any of the grim Commie leaders through Brezhnev: Shostakovich was better than Cats. But Czechoslavakia, Poland, Rumania, and, most often, East Germany (the DDR) trotted out the old song-and-dance in cinema. About forty Iron Curtain musicals were produced altogether.
The filmmakers of East Side Story, an American, Andrew Horn, and a Rumanian living in Berlin, Dana Ranga, have managed access to many Eastern film archives; they have tracked down lots of these Communist-era musicals, which nobody has seen in the West. They should be praised for their arduous sleuthing. And it's reasonable that they should have first stab at a documentary about what they discovered.
Saying that, I'm greatly disappointed at the squandered opportunity. I don't know Horn and Ranga, but, from what appears on screen in East Side Story, its clear that they were the wrong people to produce the movie. They have only the slightest idea what to do with the immensely rich material before them, or what they think of it.
My litany of complaints:
(1)The filmmakers don't have a thesis except that people seem to get pleasure out of musicals, so Communists probably shouldn't have banned them. But doesn't that make Stalin the hero of the movie, since that mass murderer brought musicals to the masses?
(2)The filmmakers fit a type of plodding documentarian who has little feeling for narrative cinema, and absolutely none for the musical form. The musical footage they include is either illustrative of some point (and invariably cut off in the middle of a number) or shoved in there for no apparent reason. At no moment do we see song and dance chosen because its beautiful, erotic, dazzling. (For that, you've got to go West to the MGM compilation, That's Entertainment.)
(3)The filmmakers have no sense of humor, no irony, no sense of camp. Lots of this left-over Stalinist hoofing and crooning is fabulous kitsch, but somehow, with the clumsy way everything is framed in East Side Story, nothing is ever especially funny, or enjoyable.
(4)The filmmakers are terrible interviewers. The ex-DDR perfomers and the Russian film critics who tell their stories should be having great fun complaining about the miserable musical days. Instead, they come off stiff and serious, surely because their off-camera interviewers are so grave.
(5) The voice-over is a miserable monotone of trite, obvious points.
(6) Hey, what about Rumania? Two mini-clips from 1950s musicals are energetic and imaginative--I loved those female trombonists with "film noir" shadows on the back wall--but that's all we get, a tease, from filmmaker Raga's native country.
(8) Why not? Albania?
(Boston Phoenix August, 1997)