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CHERYOMUSHKI is a phenomenal Soviet musical. Based on an operetta by the great composer Dmitri Shostakovich and directed by Herbert Rappaport, the film version centres on a community facing a housing crisis and the false promises and pitfalls that come from moving into a fabled new build, affectionately called Cheryomushki (Cherry Town).
Such housing projects were an actual part of Soviet history from the mid-1950s onwards, a staging post in Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev’s initiative in moving away from the grand, majestic buildings of the Stalinist era and returning to cheaper architecture.
As writer Owen Hatherley pointed out in his introduction to a rare London screening of the 1963 film provided by Russian film charity Kino Klassika last week, the plot of the musical signalled the end of this particular “pompous” aspect of Soviet culture.
Built across the USSR using industrial methods of construction, the new housing estates were minimal, with identical layouts. But they were bright and colourful, which the style of the film mirrors perfectly.
The musical explores the futile efforts of Boris, a comically confident bachelor, to charm the young Lidochika, whose family house has collapsed. Boris’s plan to help her move, and woo her in the process, is thwarted by the contradictions and roadblocks of the new housing-project developers.
The banality of this disruption is summed up by the lower-ranking estate manager Barabashkin who, while depriving Lidochika’s family of the very flat they are standing in, proclaims smugly, “there’s a protocol for that.”
The film treats such authority figures with deserved frustration and, often, slapstick parody. The way society can function through shady backroom deals is addressed but always with a light touch in the cheerful pitch of the film. Not a biting satire perhaps, but a particularly Soviet piss-take directed at dead-end bureaucracy and the centrality of housing to the discourse at this time.
The brilliantly produced music in the film, following on from Shostakovich’s original compositions, is nothing short of charming, it transcends language barriers and is worthy of listening to on its own merits.
The characters frequently break out into bombastic song and extended dance sequences, corresponding to the mid-century cultural shift towards more Hollywood-style musicals in the USSR. Yet the plot itself, revolving around a staunchly Soviet system of housing mismanagement, as well as the characters’ particular eccentricities and humour, still gives Cheryomushki that Eastern-bloc edge.
The film’s hopeless romanticism situates it well in its time of production. But Cheryomushki also provides progressive societal commentary of note, such as when Boris faces the moral dilemma of using trickery to gain the flat that is rightfully Lidochika’s – a shortcut he terms “the bend in the road.”
The problem is later dismissed as the corrupt bureaucrats get their comeuppance, predictably but satisfyingly. The overall spirit of the film is best exemplified when the new residents of Cheryomushki rid themselves of the unjust land developers and the communalist theme is carried forward as they declare: “We are the ones who built Cheryomushki and who it was built for.”
Cheryomushki hinges on the fantastical surprisingly often, given the generally domesticated storyline, with the appearance of a magic truth-telling bench serving as both a plot device and a humorous prop.
The final scene verges on sheer absurdism too, when Boris is accidentally blown up on the housing site only to land upright on Lidochika’s terrace where, presumably, together they can dance and sing their hearts out.
Sentimental and overly triumphalist, such a joyous musical could truly end no other way.
The sound track of Cheryomushki is available from deccaclassics.com and excerpts in Russian and French can be viewed on YouTube.
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