All singing! All dancing! All proletariat! Who knew the Soviets made musicals? The evidence is there in Dana Ranga's giddy documentary, which offers clips from dozens of musicals made between 1930 and 1970 from the Communi... more »st bloc. From rural Russian ditties with synchronized tractors and overall-clad farmers singing about the five-year plan to backstage melodramas and East German beach movies, this documentary reveals an entire hidden genre of Communist cinema. What makes them so fascinating is the Soviet bloc's uneasy truce with the musical, by its very nature a celebration of love and romance and plenty. How do to you turn that into a message of service and sacrifice? They tried, certainly--Stalin loved musicals--and throughout the 1930s and '40s Soviet studios created Busby Berkeley-like production numbers on assembly lines and sent field hands into song with synchronized pitchforks (no dancing allowed on the job, according to the censors) while harvesting their fields.Later musicals show more cinematic sophistication and even a winking playfulness with the genre. The clips are marvelous--some surreal, some dynamic and delirious, and some simply absurd--but to Ranga they are more than simply kitsch. Interviews with the creators and the audiences of these films reveal how much these utopian bursts of energy and joy were treasured in dreary times. Ranga creates a nostalgia for a giddy, goofy genre that this country never even knew existed. Film history has rarely been so much fun. --Sean Axmaker« less
"This look back at an obscure socialist cultural legacy -- a series of peppy musical films -- is both intriguing and weird. The clips themselves show a fantasy world of giddy happiness and lurid color not much different from other forms of East European communist propaganda. But what is both amusing and unexpected is seeing the extent to which Western popular musical sounds and images of the time (blaring saxophones, flippy hairdos and hip teens) were grafted onto a socialist framework. Sure there are the obligatory warbling peasant girls and lusty singing collective farm workers, but there are far stranger treats in store, including a tuxedo-clad suitor gliding through a suspiciously lavish living room on ice skates, courtesy of the Czechoslovak People's Republic. Surprisingly, the more orthodox and repressive Soviet satellites (GDR, Bulgaria) contribute some of the most entertaining examples of this all-but-forgotten genre. Interviews with local people who made and enjoyed these films puts them in perspective and rounds out the program."
Not just 'Girl Meets Tractor'
mattquirk | 12/23/1999
(4 out of 5 stars)
"This is a very comprehensive history of Soviet and Communist European musical films, including film clips and interviews with many of the surviving actors and directors. The movies discussed range from blantant propaganda where happy workers sing the praises of the new wheat harvesting machine to touching family stories. It's unfortunate that some of these films aren't widely available. One in particular is an outstanding East German film where the actors portray movie producers who have been ordered to produce a musical comedy, and they sing about how hard it is to get a funny musical movie about communism past the state review board. It would also have been interesting to see communist Chinese movies in a similar vein."
Socialism with a jingle...
D. E. Lyons | Tipp City, OH United States | 12/09/2000
(4 out of 5 stars)
"A very entertaining look at the 40 or so musicals that were produced in the Eastern Bloc nations from the 1930's up through the 1970's. Although highly propagandist in nature, (no more so than the "happy" muscials that were being produced in Hollywood,at the same time,)there is this innocent naiveté about the monstrous happenings during the Stalin regime. Where as in the West, musicals made us temporarily forget, depression, war and everyday sacrifices, the musicals in the East in addition, promoted the heroism of the common worker(proletartiat)and the value derived in working for the goals of building socialist nation."
If only socialism had been more fun
Joseph Haschka | Glendale, CA USA | 03/09/2005
(4 out of 5 stars)
"My credentials as a fan of screen musicals are suspect. In 56 years, I can count on one hand the number I've seen that I thought worth viewing more than once: CHICAGO (2003), EVITA (1996), HELLO DOLLY (1969), THE KING AND I (1956), and (dare I admit it?) MARY POPPINS (1964). Having said that, however, I found EAST SIDE STORY illuminating. During the Bad Old Days of the Cold War, what average American would've thought that the Warsaw Pact/Evil Empire was making musicals? And had been doing so for many years.
EAST SIDE STORY is a documentary roughly covering the period 1930-1970, when the Soviet Union, and its satellites after 1945, struggled to create Hollywood-like entertainment for the proletariat masses without sacrificing the central tenants of socialism. The fact that only forty musicals were filmed during this period suggests that the two concepts blended as efficiently as oil and water.
Chronologically, the documentary begins with the 1934 Soviet musical comedy, THE JOLLY FELLOWS, a rather unsocialist production that apparently only made it to the local cinemas after Stalin overrode the censors - a bad career move for them, no doubt - and personally approved it. As a matter of fact, Uncle Joe was a big fan of the genre, and gave a copy of a favorite reel to FDR as a gift. In any case, the visual narrative proceeds through several more Soviet releases, including the 1939 film with the catchy title TRACTOR DRIVERS and the 1946 COSSACKS OF THE KUBAN featuring synchronized wheat harvesting, and ending with the Polish, Czech, Romanian and (mostly) East German musicals of the 50s and 60s. Indeed, the costuming, hairstyles, and choreography of the DDR productions are so similar to Tinseltown fare that, if I squint my eyes against the cheesy sets and block out the German lyrics, I might just as well be watching a teenage beach blanket saga filmed in Southern California.
EAST SIDE STORY is liberally sprinkled with interviews with aging actors, production lackeys, and cinema historians. (Early on, it's pointed out that none of the films' directors have survived. A purge maybe, or just old age?) They establish quite clearly the dichotomy that existed between the desire to entertain audiences with big box office hits and the doctrinaire restrictions imposed by socialist ideology that tended to cramp the screenwriter's style. One of those interviewed wistfully observed, "If only socialism had been more fun." Gee, I don't know. I can see Stalin reprising Dick van Dyke's role as the dancing chimney sweep in MARY POPPINS, can't you?"
More footage, less interviewing....
J. Wohl | New York City | 10/24/2001
(3 out of 5 stars)
"The footage of Communist musicals were precious, and I won't say that the interviews with directors, actors, and audiences weren't informative, but the sight of these musicals were so unique that I became frustrated when they kept cutting over to lengthy interviews that often became repetitive. Still worth seeing, though probably worth renting and watching once or twice..."