Reviews Short Documentary

Music Lives Here (2020) – 3 stars

Director: Polina Stepanova

Writer: Polina Stepanova

Running time: 27mins

To be clear, while Music Lives Here is a hard slog, it rewards persistence. If you make it to the end – there are a couple of beautifully achieved scenes, and a close reading of the text will give you an insight into provincial life and national identities in Putin’s Russia. But getting there is a little challenging.

As I watched Polina Stepanova’s documentary film, the thought kept coming to my mind that I had somehow travelled back in time – to before the fall of the Soviet Union. Music Lives Here has the feel of one of those mind-numbingly boring propaganda movies made in the USSR throughout its history to showcase Soviet CULTURE to the wider world.

The feeling was so powerful and disconcerting that at one point I was going to check the date of the film’s production – but I was saved from the need by one of the featured talking heads referring to before the internet. So, we are, more or less, in the present.

More or less, because the film’s setting really is provincial. The great majority of the film is shot in Irkutsk, Siberia. For anyone unfamiliar with the geography of the Russian Federation, Irkutsk sits on or about the same degree of longitude as Bangkok.

Stepanova’s project was funded by the Ministry of Culture and its pretty overt intention is to showcase the Siberian city as a thriving hotspot of European high classical music. Stepanova concentrates on the workings of The Governor’s Philharmonic Orchestra but there are sideshow glances at grand opera and religious music for the masses.

There is also a nod to local ethic music with footage of a particularly gruesome folk music ensemble, The Baikal Quartet, performing in plastic heritage costumes. The tone is very much from high to low – classical music will make you civilized and, one assumes, European. The orchestra’s principal conductor spells out to us their – and presumably the movie’s – mission: to reveal beautiful things to people – to take them by the hand and lead them into a world of beauty.

The problem for the filmmaker and presumably for the Ministry of Culture is that the shots of the audiences in the performance clips reveal that they are overwhelmingly made up of older people. The impression we get then, is not one of a vibrant organic cultural experience but one of an artificial state sponsored construct.

The production of classical music, especially when it involves the expense and complicated logistics of a symphony orchestra raises issues of patronage – symphonies are expensive to put on. There was a charm and a logic to the Soviet model of state funding, viewing music as a social service, which to some extent has been continued by the current Russian regime; and it is important to remember that most orchestras across the world are subsidised by money from elites or governments. The problem here is that the world of beauty will tend to be used in the interests of the state – to legitimise the state’s authority and to shape the identities of its people.

Music Lives Here follows a standard format for classical music documentaries – interviews, rehearsals, and performances – you could imagine it fitting in with ease in the arts section of a regional TV news programme anywhere in the world.

Stepanova is an adept and intelligent filmmaker, and she does manage to provide some subtle nuances to an otherwise bland façade. The sheer strangeness of the physicality of classical instruments is well caught by the camera and, in the folk sequence, we are left to marvel at the monstrous impracticality of the balalaika contra-bass. In a smart piece of directing, she paints a counterpoint relationship between the movie’s two lead characters. We have the older and venerable chief conductor, Ilmar Lapinsh, An Honoured Art Worker of Russia, no less; cleverly counterposed with the younger junior conductor, Maxim Kachalov, who is also a virtuoso violinist and jazz trumpeter.

Lapinsh is of the Things Were Better in My Day corner, and speaks wistfully of the Soviet past when workers from the Kirov motor plant were given free tickets for the concert season. During one of Lapinsh’s nostalgic reminiscences, Stepanova conjures up an extraordinary scene. Lapinsh says that he is an idealist and that the slogan Proletarians of All Countries Unite still has meaning for him – he then, incredibly, goes on to recite the phrase in Lithuanian, Estonian, Lettish, and, finally, Kazakh. The sequence filled me with dread, and I am sitting perched on an island at the other end of the Eurasian landmass – what viewers of the movie on Riga strand or downtown Almaty might make of it, I can only guess. As to whether an endorsement of the loving embrace of Soviet imperialism was a message the film’s backers at the Ministry of Culture wanted international audiences to hear, or whether it was an intelligent exposition by the director of how Putin’s revanchism has shaped Russians’ views of the world is anyone’s guess.

In contrast to Lapinsh, we come to know Kachalov mainly through his music. There is one short interview when he speaks enthusiastically about his evening job as a jazz trumpeter in a bar. Stepanova then shows us footage of Kachalov performing in the bar as part of a jazz band. The footage is an explosion of colour, and the excitement of the musicians is palpable – it’s a beautifully realised scene set in contrast to the dull tones of the footage of Irkutsk streetscapes that bookend it – it feels to the viewer that we have made it back briefly to the 21st century.

Kachalov is also key to the success of the movie’s wonderful final scene. Lapinsh and the orchestra’s staff grumble to camera about the problems that the Irkutsk trams, which run right outside their concert hall, cause during rehearsal – as they speak, we hear the roar of a passing tram, and we can almost feel the building shake. In an impish riposte, like something imagined by Bulgakov, Kachalov boards a tram, violin to hand, and plays some heartachingly beautiful music which continues over the end credits – art fleetingly triumphs – a simple and astonishingly effective piece of cinema.       

Often, when reviewing for Indy Film Library, I notice in a movie’s credits that it has been financially supported by a national or regional government or tourist board. Film production is similar to running a symphony orchestra – both require the assembling of teams of highly skilled individuals and cost money, so for both the question of patronage is a given. The reason I have highlighted the issue of state sponsorship in this review is the unusual confluence between the film’s patronage and its subject matter – Music Lives Here was paid for by the state, and is about the performance of state institutions. This means while it might not come from the studio system, calling it independent is not accurate either – it comes with some not insignificant strings attached.

With that said, on the evidence of their work on this project, Stepanova has demonstrated that they are a talented and innovative young filmmaker. I realise that opportunities for indy film production in Irkutsk might be somewhat limited, but hopefully having shown what they can do here, Stepanova gets an opportunity in the future to show what they can achieve as a truly indy filmmaker.

One thing I will be forever grateful to Stepanova for is giving us detailed credits as to the music featured in the movie. I was so struck by the violin piece played by Kachalov on the tram – I looked it up – it is JS Bach’s Chaconne Partita No 2. I downloaded Hilary Hahn’s version and Bach’s music simply dazzles. Jimi Hendrix and Miles Davis have always been for me the supreme innovators, but this is from another universe – pace Maestro Lapinsh – I’ve been led into a world of beauty.

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