Guns and guys and rock’n roll – a PhD study looks into Russian film music

4,3,2,1… a countdown wheel from yesterday’s cinema is flashing on a big screen and suddenly we see a cheerful young man dancing to a lively rock song flowing from an old-fashioned record player. The guy’s body language and the way he mimics echo the laid back mood of the music, but still there’s something in this scene that makes the audience shiver. Something evil seems present – the crowd is riveted to the picture, which abruptly cuts off...

This is not a film screening but a doctoral defence at the faculty of arts at the University of Helsinki. Ira Österberg has studied the role and function of music in films since 2008 and she has an explanation as to why we all are absolutely certain that something terrible is about to be revealed when the camera moves away from the joyful dancer.

— Background music can often be interpreted as the voice of the narrator, Österberg explains. When characters in a film themselves chooses the background music for their actions, it often forebodes a tragic turn. If the music emphatically contrasts with the mood of the storytelling, as when a happy rock song is played in an otherwise gloomy scene, it often tells something about the lack of empathy and even possible mental illness of the character that chose the music. This has been a very popular trope in American cinema, but you cannot find it in Soviet or early 1990s Russian films where the songs performed are mostly touching, romantic pieces accompanied by a single guitar.

Music did play a big role in Soviet cinema, but not just any music. The appropriate music used to emphasize the mood of a film and the personality of its protagonist was without exception classical music, more often than not composed especially for that movie. The music belongs to the background and needs no explanation. It is part of the scenery just like the painted sunset. When there was an explicit musical performance, it was most often a traditional folk song to bring local colour to the scene, or a march to raise the socialist spirit.  

— This division into non-diegetic music (where the tune begs no explanation) and diegetic music (where the music is actually performed) has been used for a long time in film studies. I was especially interested in the effects created by the variation between them. As I delved deeper into Soviet cinema, I found that there were very strictly defined roles for different musical genres. For example, rock music was only accepted for diegetic use. In soviet movies, it might be played in restaurant scenes and parties where young people gathered to exercise immoral behaviour and Western degeneration. In the perestroika era, rock’n roll was still played in the restaurant scenes but now this signaled progress. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, everything changed.

Brother - pioneer of new Russian cinema

Ira Österberg became smitten with Russian rock and cinema after seeing Aleksej Balabanov’s 1997 blockbuster movie Brother (Brat). Its music — by the Russian band Nautilus Pompilius — is an integral part of the narration.

— The traditional diegetic/non-diegetic dichotomy didn’t seem to work with this film. Every piece of music was rock or pop, used as both diegetic and non-diegetic. It is as if the songs themselves oscillated between different levels of narration, searching for the right place. Do they represent the narrator or are they chosen by the protagonist? The entire meaning and mood of the movie depends on how you interpret this question.

The film Brother has been the object of many scholarly studies. It is seen as the pioneering work of new Russian cinema that began to develop in the late 1990s after almost a decade of dominance by Hollywood films. Brother and its sequels divided public opinion, but among scholars they were seen as extremely interesting and faithful portraits of the Russian society of the times, and especially of its criminal margins. Brother was studied as a patriotic epic of violence due to the racist tendency of its protagonist.

— I disliked the idea that a movie should be seen purely as a mirror for the society and decided to study its aesthetic qualities instead, says Österberg. It is a work of art after all, consciously created by a group of people using the different methods and tools of cinematic art. Brother, like other works by Balabanov, makes good use of both domestic and international cinematic conventions. They deserve to be studied in the poetic context as well. 

Look beneath the surface - special tools needed

Using the methodology of film studies, Ira Österberg has unearthed many meanings and levels from Brother that have been overlooked in previous research. Different narrative levels and their fluctuations reveal interpretations that often even contradict the apparent storyline and description.

— If one stops at the surface level and looks at the plot alone, one might not notice that the main character is not necessarily a true protagonist. Ignoring the instrument of the narration – the art form that is film – makes one miss many important aspects, as is the case in, for example, Stanley Kubrick’s Clockwork Orange or Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver. The genre of the movie plays an important role, too: Is this a gangster movie, arty flick, realistic drama, or maybe even a comedy? The use of music has a big influence in defining the understanding of a genre.

But if all this comes from Hollywood films, is there anything Russian about Brother? Is it just an opportunistic pastiche for Russian markets?

— When Brother hit the cinemas in 1997, Balabanov was indeed dubbed “the Russian Quentin Tarantino”, but in my opinion the directors and their films share very little in their approach to music as a narrative device and a tool to describe their characters’ inner world. The meanings and interpretations rising from Brother are strongly rooted in the Soviet cinematic traditions and Soviet attitudes towards rock music, which changed during the perestroika period. Brother is about the clash of generations and about the deep anxiety over the generation that matured during the tumult of the 1990s and the war in Chechnya.

There is thus quite a violent collision of American stylistic conventions and Soviet/Russian tradition and reality in Brother. And plenty of clashing, crashing, and blood transpires at other levels of the movie, too. That is why one might find it surprising that the film also has a very delicate and self-aware undercurrent.

Brother is a very special movie in that it creates all these collisions with greatest self-awareness. It renews the tradition while at the same time commenting on its own role in the renewal process. This can be detected, for example, in the way that the film contains tiny flashes of all the different ways of combining music with the moving image: there’s a live concert, there’s the watching of a recording from a concert, making music videos, singing at the kitchen table, listening to radio, strumming the guitar with friends… 

Russian film music – in need of study

Ira Österberg will continue working with Russian movies and film music. It is clearly an area that demands to be further researched, as to this day the research has been limited to looking at the work of great classical composers such as Prokofiev and Shostakovich.

— I see my PhD dissertation as an opening of a more open-minded discussion about film music. There’s so much more to Soviet and Russian film music than just the magnificent original orchestra pieces composed for specific movies. Soviet film is a wonderful research area because it has long taken its independent paths, quite separate to the Western traditions. The music in films was not productized as sound tracks by the music business and traditional singing and performances had a stronger hold than in the West. For me, the logical next step as a researcher would be to test my findings against a bigger sample of Russian movies and apply some quantitative methods to a large body of works. 

4,3,2,1… A man is sitting by a fire. There’s ambient humming in the black night. “Sing us something” ask the people gathered by the fire. The man lets out a sigh, opens his guitar case, takes out reading glasses and places them on his nose – and starts a wild concert of out-of-tune howls and random chords. The audience following the doctoral defence bursts into laughter. The man finishes his song, sighs again, and wipes his tearful eyes.

Ira Österberg defended her doctoral thesis on rock music in Russian cinema on May 9, 2018

Ira Österberg graduated as PhD from the faculty of arts at the University of Helsinki in spring 2018. She has studied Russian language and literature, film studies and music, and participated in the activities of the multidisciplinary doctoral programme at the Aleksanteri Institute since 2010.

Her doctoral dissertation What Is That Song? Aleksej Balabanov's Brother and Rock as Film Music in Russian Cinema is available online via the University of Helsinki digital archives, HELDA.