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Vysotsky. Spasibo, Chto Zhivoi (Vysotsky. Thank You for Being Alive). Directed by Pyotr Buslov

A Second Lease on Life Reviewed by Elena Zhuk and Halina Zhuk Special to Russia Profile 01/27/2012

Featuring: Oksana Akinshina, Andrey Panin, Ivan Urgant, Dmitry Astrachan, Andrey Smolyakov, Maxim Leonidov

The film “Vysotsky. Thank You for Being Alive,” directed by Pyotr Buslov, is a reaffirmation that the iconic Soviet musician and poet Vladimir Vysotsky is still loved and admired by millions of Russians. According to the Russian Public Opinion Research Center (VTsIOM), the movie was chosen as the film of the year by nine percent of the poll’s respondents. Vysotsky has also been ranked second to Yuri Gagarin as the idol of the 20th century, the poll, which was conducted in 2010 showed.

The success of the movie was virtually guaranteed by the scores of immensely different age groups who have taken an interest in the cult figure of the 1970s. On the other hand, so much has been shown, said and written about Vysotsky throughout the 31 years since his death that “Thank you for Being Alive” certainly had to add something original to his image for the film to succeed. So what could that “something” be?

The intrigue starts with the shooting of the film, when the actor playing Vysotsky appears unrecognizable even to his colleagues. The make-up was done so masterfully that everyone recognizes the character but not the actor behind him. According to Nikita Vysotsky, the film’s screenwriter and Vysotsky’s son, the filmmakers decided not to reveal the name of the leading actor in order to emphasize the very image of Vysotsky himself. The complicated makeup also leaves a vague impression of the character’s absence, who in real life was an expressive actor with a great gift. According to Nikita Vysotsky, the film is fictional but based on real-life events.

The plot of the motion picture is based on Vysotsky's dramatic lifetime. The focal point is his near-death experience in Uzbekistan in 1979 while on tour. His constant creative search, intense work schedule and drug addiction resulted in a critical health condition. The singer decides to ignore the symptoms and still goes to Uzbekistan, where in the exhausting heat of Bukhara he has a heart attack during a concert and experiences a clinical death. The narration touches upon eternal issues: love and friendship, faith and official duty in the Soviet reality of the 1970s, unauthorized concerts, and the presence of the KGB. Struggling through a personal crisis, Vysotsky does his best to share his genius with the Soviet people while formally playing by the rules of Soviet society.

The atmosphere of the time is accurately reproduced in the movie. The filmmakers called it “retro without retro” in order to address the younger generation while preserving the spirit of the 1970s. Thus, the colors look modern and bright on the screen, while the movie itself was filmed with rare Soviet cameras, reconstructed specially for the occasion. According to the filmmakers, together with a certain lens system, this helped to achieve the desired retro effect. At the same time, the excellent quality of the filming meets all contemporary cinematic standards.

The post-modern interpretation of that time and spirit is probably the key virtue and the driver behind the success of the movie. The filmmakers managed to find authentic Soviet locations, props and costumes. An authentic setting was found not only in Russia, but also at the old airport in Brest and at a recreation center in Bukhara. A blue Mercedes, matching almost exactly the legendary one, was found in Germany – at that time in Russia, apart from Vysotsky, only then-General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev owned such a car. Costume designer Yekaterina Shapkayts said the characters’ clothes were copied from the original wear of the 1970s and were purchased at flea markets and second hand stores. Vysotsky’s shirts were recreated from existing photographs, and the singer’s personal belongings were brought in from the Moscow museum, the Vysotsky House on Taganka, dedicated to his life.

Most of the film’s characters, except Vysotsky’s parents and the doctor, are fictional. Special attention should be paid to the fine performance by Oksana Akinshina, who plays Vysotsky’s girlfriend, even though this woman’s role in the singer’s real life was fleeting.

One should note that this is not a documentary about Vysotsky, but a fiction movie about his time, his surroundings and his ultimate tragedy – the singer’s own voice recordings or real footage of his acting aren’t used in the picture. It is not recommended for those seeking accuracy, but rather for those who are interested in psychological drama, the 1970s and the Soviet aesthetic.

Even certain episodes can’t be considered representative of the time and place. In the Soviet Union, only a famous and charismatic figure such as Vysotsky could have afforded to marry a foreigner and easily travel abroad. There’s a scene in the movie showing Vysotsky awaiting a call from his wife – the French actress Marina Vlady, whom he plans to visit instead of touring Uzbekistan. In reality, the actress was Vysotsky’s third wife, and wrote a book called “Vladimir, or the Aborted Flight” about their years spent together. The filmmakers didn’t consult her on the movie, and she later told the Argumenty I Facty newspaper that the film insults the artist’s memory, life and work. She reportedly only saw a fragment of the film.

Vysotsky died exactly a year after the incident portrayed in the film. Though the official establishment at the time largely ignored him, he achieved remarkable fame during his lifetime. His unmatched poetry, unique singing style, stage and screen performances have had a great impact on Soviet culture. Hopefully, “Thank You for Being Alive” will awaken an interest within those less familiar with Vysotsky’s masterpieces and will breathe new life into his work.

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