This week I’m taking a break from the bad movies to look at a documentary about some of the worst movies on Earth—the Soviet musicals. Yes, when Stalin said in 1935, “Life has become better, comrades; life has become more cheerful” he wasn’t simply referring to his brutal purges, he was also talking about Alexandrov’s Volga, Volga, a musical about villagers who travel the Volga to Moscow to become entertainers. Because, you know, the real entertainers in Moscow, had been, like, exterminated. Dana Ranga’s East Side Story is one of the best documentaries I have seen about Soviet film and is required watching for truly devoted readers of this blog.
While from Lenin on the Soviets have tried to compete with Hollywood, Protazanov’s Aelita comes to mind as an early attempt to make a sci-fi film, they have never been truly successful. Big sets and fancy costumes somehow don’t gel with five-year plans. The very idea of a musical in the midst of Stalin may seem counterfactual. Gregori Alexandrov can be considered the pioneer of these 1930s musicals, he directed Jolly Fellows in 1934, never expecting it to get it past Soviet censors. With Gorky’s help, Alexandrov scored a showing with Stalin, who rightly said “it takes a very brave man to make a comedy,” and then, being a fan of the slapstick, didn’t kill Alexandrov and the rest is movie history. Of course, these weren’t run of the mill fun in the sun musicals, they had to fuse social realism, you know, stories about workers, with music. My favorite selection from these often odd-couple offerings is the coal press musical, which features young women mouthing “we sing the song of the coal press.” Score one Stalin! There are other movies about tractors, peasants, and yes, a swineherd in love. Not unlike The Sound of Music, in fact, except with pigs.
While Soviet musicals may have died out with Stalin, the GDR seems to have picked up the shiny baton in the 1950s. Ranga features My Wife Wants to Sing, a totally communist approach to American Idol which looks a lot more fun than the Russian stuff. It being communism, the dancing isn’t great, but at least My Wife wants to have fun—in fact, however off-key, the songs are kind of catchy. In the 1960s, with the division of Berlin came a similar cutting-off of GDR culture. Simply put, the East German hippie musical industry never took off.
Why are Soviet musical numbers not sung in the streets? Beautiful as they are, these bad movies have been forgotten to time. While Americans will be bombarded with say, The Ugly Truth for years, they will never catch Jolly Fellows on cable. The director often quotes Brigitte Ulrich, simply credited as “audience member,” who sums it up this way, “Behind the Iron Curtain, there is laughter.” Not a bad way to put it, really. And who knows, if more Americans saw this, we could finally solve the Cold War, because, well, if they can laugh, they’re not that different after all.
The Jolly Fellows