The Dark Knight Rises: Victor Tsoi and the Сinema

On the 12th of November Aleksey Uchitel's Tsoi (2020) (our article about this film), a movie that describes the events after Victor's tragic death in a car accident, was released. Uchitel, the author of a few other films dedicated to Tsoi, said that Victor "had always been a mystery" for him so he wanted to "dig through archives, and find the answers." On this occasion, I'd like to dig into the world of The Needle (1988), the only full-length movie in which Tsoi played the main character. Since it is one of the few remaining videos with the living Tsoi, it might give us all the answers we may need, not only about himself but also about the period he became an icon of.

by Anna Kavtaradze


Some kind of muddle emerged in Leningrad in the late 1980-s. It brought together lots of people from the underground culture and turned into a powerful, ramified system that included poets, musicians, and sophists — hundreds of people. There were a lot of opposite trends; the complexity and sociability of the members empowered them to interact. Tsoi was a full participant of «The new artists» (a creative society based in Leningrad), exhibited in the legendary squat gallery called Assa.

— Sergei Bugaev, who plays Bananan, for Esquire
Rashid started to develop the project, when he got a suggestion from Kazakhfilm to work on The Needle, which already had a scenario (a guy comes to Alma-Ata to get a debt from his former friend Spartak but stays to save his beloved from drug addiction), approved team and a cast by that time. Kazakhfilm asked a young filmmaker to take the lead on the movie because of the conflict between directors and screenwriters, which bollixed the whole deal. Nugmanov agreed but laid down a few conditions: he changes the whole cast for his friends, finds a new operator, because the old one couldn't keep up with the new style, and does everything he wants with the script. The terms were accepted, and the work began. The character of Moro moved to the new movie.
The Needle, a movie about new culture, which broke the rules of socialist realism, and shocked the Soviet viewers all over the country, didn't appear out of nowhere. Its astonishing success was the result of the Soviet underground's long-standing existence.
Firstly, Rashid Nugmanow – The Needle's director – planned a movie about the Alma-Ata hot dressers of the 60-s called The King of The Brod (Alma-Ata's main street) with a protagonist named Moro. He was supposed to be a famous city beach-comber, hanging about Brod playing banjo and picking fights. When Rashid and Victor got acquainted, Nugmanov realized that Tsoi was perfect for the lead role. Victor signed on the dotted line.
The cinema tempted Tsoi; he wrote scenario blueprints, sketched the ideas. Victor started to take the stock of genres, the cinema language, and we discussed different movies. He could try to make a film as a director, that's a very possible alternative. I bet he'd have liked The Matrix with its leather trench coats, Kungfu, and stolid Keanu Reeves.

— Rashid Nugmanov for Esquire
Rashid's slant was a breakthrough in the 80-s. He was a fan of Dziga Vertov and his "life caught unawares" concept. The acting cast was built from his unprofessional friends; he filmed most of the scenes in one take and allowed the actors to constantly improvise. Partly, he followed the technique of his professor, Sergei Soloviev, who also worked with the laymen. This feature provided a special tone to the dialogues: they sound calm, mundane, and "cold."
Rashid Nugmanov was a VGIK student back then. He studied at Sergei Soloviev's class, who filmed Assa (1987), the first movie where Tsoi appeared and only made some windy training videos with his friends from the local in-crowd. Grebenshchikov, Tsoi, Bashirov, Kasparyan, etc. No one thought they would be legends someday.
We were just hanging out together. Who could know back then that it would be considered as… glorious? Everything was casual, everyone was "at their ripest," I'd say. That was the true happiness of talented people – to be together.

— Alexander Bashirov for the "Visiting Gordon" program
Tsoi gave his character a new interpretation, providing him with more dignity, wisdom, and a little bit of kung fu. Moro became recognizable. Even the black jacket, Victor starred in, later became a trend. He also brought the sunglasses, which Moro wears in the hospital and at the café while talking to gangsters to both create an image of a stylish mod and to barricade himself from the outside world. During the shootings of the fight scene, one eyeglass was broken, and in the movie, Moro puts those broken glasses on his friend Spartak to emphasize the ridicule and reverie of the character and his dead-end position in life.

Nugmanov wanted Tsoi to take his cue from James Dean, a cultural icon of social estrangement from the 1950-s, but Tsoi was more into Bruce Lee, so they combined two legends to create a new enigmatic superhero.
When Nugmanov started working on The Needle, he already knew who was going to star in every role. Dina was supposed to be played by Rutha Sergeeva (a real drug-addict), who starred in his first movie – Ya-Hha (1986). However, the actress got pregnant, so Rashid had to find someone else in a rush. He asked Natalia Razlogova, Tsoi's girlfriend but she refused and showed him Marina Smirnova's photos. Smirnova was captured holding a gun, which inspired the director to shoot the scene of Moro and Dina's meeting in the shooting gallery.
Marina was a radio DJ. She had never played in a movie before, so she was very afraid of spoiling it. However, Nugmanov's personal approach and Tsoi's warm attitude made every day of production "feel like a festival."

Tsoi hadn't ever been interested in being an actor, though he was very excited about taking part in Rashid's movies.
J: Are you satisfied with your work as an actor?
Tsoi: Not exactly.
J: If the situation changes, will you become an actor?
Tsoi: Nope.

— Victor Tsoi's interview on The Needle from the "Till 16 and older…" program
He wanted to work with a heroic myth. Clint Eastwood, Japanese poetry, Bruce Lee`s admonitions, that were spread in scribal copies then – all those things nourished him, Victor reconsidered, transformed those, and created something of his own. Tsoi was after the character of a special type – a loner, outsider, who doesn't jest, feign and play by someone else's rules.

— Rashid Nugmanov

Alexander Bashirov studied at the Directing faculty with Rashid, and starred in some of his sketches, as a friend. He starred in Soloviev's Assa, so choosing him to play Spartak was predictable. A significant part of his role was also impromptu. For example, his most famous scene, when he makes a fiery, politicized speech at the bottom of an old fire tank, was filmed, when Bashirov had a hangover. The director asked him to come up with a spontaneous speech, and Alexander did with flying colors, despite the bighead (or maybe thanks to it). His character, Spartak, is a no-one important, a timid person with a rebellious spirit. He used to be powerful but now he is in the red and owes money even to Moro, his former fellow (as the director claimed).

All of those characters are generally lost. They are surrounded by the ugly and incoherent world; they are thrown out of normal life. Who are they? Where did they come from? What is going on around them? Maybe that's a dream, maybe Dina's drug horrors, maybe the reality. Everything is unclear. And that's the whole point!

While editing the script that Baraev and Kalibanov created, Nugmanov left out huge pieces of text. He said there were a lot of "idle talk" and too many explanations. The original version of the movie lasted for two hours but it was reduced to 80 minutes due to the film distribution and exhibition rules. Rashid withdrew almost all the parts where the details about the characters' lives were revealed, such as the scene where Moro visits his parents' house while they are absent and accidentally comes across his younger sister. In the final version, all of the central figures are puzzling and inscrutable.

Other out-take vignettes include an original epic fight between the criminals and Moro. Rashid invited real drug addicts from the dependency clinic (they were happy to have a walk and eat some ice cream at the park). During the fight the actors' faces were smashed, one of them even broke his arm. The operator filmed the scene sitting on the paling. Then Nugmanov realized that the fight looked messy and illegible, and the episode was replaced with another fighting scene with professional stuntmen.
Another rock star from the movie is Pyotr Mamonov, frontman of the band Zvuki Mu. In The Needle, he debuted as an actor and showed a genuine acting talent. He starred as Arthur, a surgeon and a drug dealer. Mamonov had a bad reputation because of his alcoholism but, as we can tell, Nugmanov always "skipped the shortcuts."
I drank myself to death and wasn't even able to stand up… but without that constant negotiation, the film would be rubbish.

— Pyotr Mamonov
The soundtrack of The Needle is very unique. Victor composed his songs right during the filming process. By the end of the day, he could always present a new song. That's how The star called Sun, the title track, was created. Other different sounds represent the chaotic times of Perestroika, which people lived in. You can recognize Muslim Magomaev, Edita Piekha, Adriano Celentano, Soviet-like voiceover, which was taken from old radio programs, and even the theme music from The Godfather (1972). A huge and powerful country with strict rules and traditions turned into a total mess, where people didn't understand each other and even themselves anymore.
Fate turned out to be an even stricter director. When later Rashid came to Kazakhfilm to search for those unused materials to include them in The Needle Remix (2010), it emerged that they were all annihilated. Nugmanov also dreamed about the sequel of The Needle, where it would become clear that Moro was alive.
The movie was supposed to start in the hospital, from the shot where Arthur himself leans over us with other doctors. Tsoi's death put paid to that idea. (If you feel like crying right now, let me console the pain. The director also planned that it is easy to get to the hospital from the street where Moro was stabbed, so he would get help no matter what).

I also want to mark the unique locations. The film is based on the contrasts: Moro, a gentle knight, and Arthur, a dangerous "Koschei the Immortal;" a beautiful hospital, where Arthur works, and peeling streets that his cronies inhabit; gloomy, hoary, and desert Alma-Ata and those endless sun-drenched open spaces of the Aral sea.

The filming at the sea took 10 days. Maria Smirnova (Dina) recalls those memories with warm feelings: a dilapidated house, a nice old local couple, which also appeared in the film, Tsoi walking kilometers in the blazing heat to get to the post office and call his girlfriend Natasha. Once Marina and Viktor were walking in the desert and stumbled across a huge rusty cargo ship. The shot with the ship became iconic. It perfectly represents that "nowhere land," where Dina and Moro exist.

It was difficult to find a suitable location for Dina's apartment. Finally, the right place was found in the most prestigious building in Alma-Ata, where only the academicians lived. Here we can see the broken shabby decorations again: there are chaotically placed sculptures, gold chandeliers, an empty dark kitchen, and expensive porcelain standing idly. Dina looks like a trapped princess in that gaunt place.
That was our spine-chilling times – the 1980-s. Times that felt like a nebulous delirium. You can't even imagine how terrifying our life was. It was a jail. For wearing long hair and walking barefoot on the street you could be locked up for 15 days. In that romantic atmosphere, we were drinking Porto, thinking it was a protest. Some saint things existed even in that nightmare. Victor Tsoi was walking around Leningrad looking like sunshine, Borya Grebenshchikov was like an angel when he was seventeen. People were rabbiting together in fear. Nowadays it is somewhat worse because everything is allowed and we are all disconnected.

— Pyotr Mamonov for BK55
I don't think that the popularity came to Tsoi because of The Needle, or the street cred he created in it, of course. It was his deep, intellectual, and simply genius songs that wrote his name in history. 1988 was the moment when he became crazily famous and the movie just enhanced the clamor. Besides, he already had a valiant and mysterious public image after Assa.
The movie had a box-office success, which was a huge surprise for its creators. They thought that The Needle would be forced onto the back burner just as it always happened but instead, it was shown all over the country. That was the impact of the "glasnost'." Before, the Soviet officials were afraid to allow something. During Perestroika, they were afraid to ban.
The legends about an underground musician from the KGB`s black-list named Victor Tsoi were everywhere. Scandal stories about Pyotr Mamonov were all over. And suddenly the movie was released! No one knew whether the film would make it to the Soviet screens or not. Youth hankered after the forbidden fruit, and so many people came to the movie's opening night in Kazakhstan, that the cinema couldn't fit everyone so the crowd broke open the door. Some phrases from the movie turned into passwords to recognize "the insiders":

"In this world, there are two kinds of people: those who sit on pipes, and those who need money. You are sitting on a pipe."

Victor remained resistant to fame. He was always described as a very reserved and withdrawn person but very warm, tender, and lighthearted towards his close ones.
Victor didn't fully believe that he was talented. Even after The Needle's success, Victor said again and again: "Guys, it's so strange that people like me." He was very decent, even blushing.

— Joanna Stingray for Colta

In January 1990 we were invited to the Sundance festival with The Needle. It was located in Park City, Utah, United States. The Needle's exhibition was sold out. Ed Pressman (film producer) acquainted us with the writer William Gibson. I visited him in San Francisco. We got wrecked drinking gin and tonic, and by morning sketched the script for the sequel. It was about Moro's adventures in futuristic Leningrad after the Soviet Dissolution."

— Rashid Nugmanov

Serezha Soloviev at the end of his movie perfectly imagined Tsoi as the new messiah. And messiahs don't live long."

— Boris Grebenshchikov to Esquire

The Needle just formed Tsoi's iconic impression altogether. He gave the Union of Perestroika times (a messy place with a huge increase in crime and new obscure events like drugs, political opposition, and the first manifestations of capitalism) the hero it was craving for: a dark knight, who was fearless, gloomy, and capable of reaching out for the moon. Kino's popularity suddenly went abroad, which was a total miracle.
At the beginning of the 1980-s, no one could imagine that soon the Iron Curtain would fall, the nationals would travel abroad and an underground rock band would perform at Luzhniki Stadium singing We Are Awaiting Changes. In 1990 Victor Tsoi was already a superstar, Assa and The Needle were overwhelmingly successful. Kino started to receive different offers from foreign agents, musicians, filmmakers. It seemed like the golden years came for the band and its frontman. Everything came to an end in August, at the fatal crook on the high road.
"For me, it seems like for the last 2-3 years he felt awry psychologically. When he sang about the early death, it was a part of the heroic image, of course – you know, "live fast, die young," and all that stuff, but now those entries – "who lives by different laws, and who will die young" — sound like a prophecy…"

— Alexander Titov, the former bassist of Aquarium and Kino

Victor Tsoi died in a car crash at the age of 28, being all the rage. He stayed forever in that crazy epoch, at the turn of the millennium, but he is still alive in our minds as the symbol of seeking changes, being brave, reckless, and fair.
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