Only in a Woody Allen film will you hear quite as much Dixieland jazz as this. Here is We Are from Jazz, or We Are Jazzmen, the zany jazz comedy musical from Russian director Karen Shakhnazarov, originally released in 1983, but now revived as part of the Melodia! festival of Russian musicals at London’s BFI Southbank and Ciné Lumière.
Shakhnazarov is now a rather establishment figure in Putin’s Russia as director general of the official Mosfilm studios and supporter of the party line, but his breakthrough film showed him to be a sprightly, subversive, comic talent – a tweaker of authority’s nose. His story imagines the birth of jazz in the Soviet Union, and it has the spirit of Hollywood movies such as George Roy Hill’s The Sting or even Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot.
Igor Skylar is Kostya, a brilliant young jazz pianist expelled from the music academy because jazz is emblematic of decadent American capitalism. Kostya tries valiantly to argue for the progressive, revolutionary credentials of jazz – the music of the African-American people, fighting against their white oppressor. But it is no good. So Kostya wanders the streets, recruiting street musicians for his band, and finds Stepan (Aleksandr Pankratov-Chyorny), Zhora (Nikolai Averyushkin), and Ivan (Pyotr Shcherbakov).
Another kind of jazz musical might have concentrated on the picaresque adventures of our heroes, perhaps particularly their adventures in love; and it’s true that a beautiful singer called Katya (Yelena Tsyplakova) tries to tempt Kostya away from his pals to form a band with her. But this is more of an absurdist, bizarre, even existential jazz musical. The guys (they’re never that fussed about deciding on a name) keep worrying about jazz. What is jazz? What are they doing playing it? When will people understand and like jazz?
With a sickeningly ironic inevitability, the Soviet authorities, having disliked jazz, are forming committees in which they will decide what kind of jazz is sufficiently pure. And there are uproarious, dreamlike scenes in which they get to play lavish concerts on expensive sets: one including a giant rotating LP disc.
Kostya himself sounds like a mature Oscar Peterson. A very entertaining fantasy comedy.