Lead actors’ names are usually a strong selling point for a movie, but Russia’s newest would-be blockbuster is gambling on a reverse strategy.
The producers of “Vysotsky. Spasibo, Chto Zhivoi” (“Vysotsky. Grateful To Be Alive”) – one of the year’s biggest and most anticipated domestic movies – are using a mystery around who played the main character as a major publicity tool, boosting the buzz about the movie.
It took $12 million, five years, three directors and an unnamed number of candidates for the main role to make the film about popular Soviet-era singer, songwriter and actor Vladimir Vysotsky. The picture is the year’s second most expensive domestic production after the second installment of Nikita Mikhalkov’s $45 million epic “Utomlenniye Solntsem 2” (“Burnt By The Sun 2”), which was released in May.
In a recent opinion poll, Vysotsky was considered the 20th century’s second most popular person in Russia after cosmonaut Yury Gagarin. But unlike the outer-space pioneer, Vysotsky was always a semi-official figure, which added to his popularity among ordinary people.
Vysotsky wasn’t a dissident; he was a successful actor on stage and screen, but his songs were quite far from the dominant communist ideology, and were therefore considered “undesirable.”
Recordings of his songs were mostly distributed via unofficial magnetic-tape copies, and many Soviet families in the late 1970s and early 1980s had those recordings. It was only in 1978 – two years before his death at age 42 – that a long-play album of Vysotsky’s songs was released by the Soviet Union’s sole record label, state-run Melodiya. Similarly, he was very rarely allowed to perform on TV.
Nevertheless, Vysotsky was one of the most popular singers/songwriters in the country, more popular than those who were constantly on television and whose records were released in millions of copies.
Curiously, his biography was never adapted for the screen until “Vysotsky. Spasibo, Chto Zhivoi.” He was only a minor character in Ivan Dykhovichny’s 2002 movie “Kopeika.”
The new film was produced by Channel One, the country’s main television station, whose films for the big screen have often become major hits, such as Timur Bekmambetov’s “Nochnoi Dozor” (“Night Watch”) and “Dnevnoi Dozor” (“Day Watch”). But not everything went smoothly, and the production took longer than expected.
Making the biography of Vysotsky also turned out to be a major challenge for directors. First to take a stab was Igor Voloshin, known for “Olympius Inferno,” a television film about the 2008 war in South Ossetia, criticized as a propaganda piece. Soon he was replaced by veteran Alexander Mitta but he didn’t last long, either. Eventually the film was completed by Pyotr Buslov, known for the two-part criminal movie “Bumer” (“Beamer”).
The movie does not aim to give the entire biography of the singer, focusing instead on one of the most crucial and dramatic episodes in his life: in July 1979 when Vysotsky was on tour in Uzbekistan, he suffered a cardiac arrest, experienced clinical death and was resuscitated. Hence the second part of the title: “Grateful To Be Alive.”
One of the biggest problems for the creators of the film was who to cast as the main character. Audiences in this country know well how Vysotsky looks on the screen, thanks to his numerous roles in films that can still be seen on television. Perhaps his most popular role was in the 1978 TV crime series “Mesto Vstrechi Izmenit Nelzya” (“The Meeting Place Can’t Be Changed”).
Casting an actor who looked noticeably different would set the Vysotsky film up for a disaster. The solution was found in using extensive makeup and computergenerated images, which also allowed the producers to come up with their major publicity stunt for the film’s release: the mystery about who actually played the main character.
“We were looking for an actor for a very long time,” Konstantin Ernst, Channel One’s general director who co-wrote and co-produced the film, was quoted as saying by RIA Novosti. “[We] understood that there is no such actor, and eventually we came up with a combination of impressive performance, makeup and CGI. The name of the actor who played the main character is not on the credits.”
The name of the main actor was not revealed before the film’s release, and even the fellow actors could not leak his identity because, for the sake of the mystery, they only saw him already made up, according to the film’s producers. It took four hours every shooting day to put on the makeup, and another hour-and-a-half to remove it.
Meanwhile, many people who watched the movie in the first days of its release believed that Vysotsky was played by Sergei Bezrukov, which corresponds with reports from a few years ago that he would be cast for the role. Incidentally, he “officially” plays another character.
“Vysotsky” was written by Ernst, Anatoly Maximov, Nikolai Popov and Vystotsky’s son Nikita. The movie features such highprofile actors and showbiz figures as Sergei Shakurov, Ivan Urgant, Maxim Leonidov, Oksana Akinshina and Andrei Panin.
The involvement of Vysotsky’s son added a personal touch to the project.“[The film] is what Nikita wanted to tell,” Akinshina, who played Vysotsky’s mistress, said in an interview with Afisha magazine. “[It is] an emotional statement for the friends and family, for the time itself. And probably this is, if not the last opportunity, then the latest date when a film [about Vysotsky] could be interesting.”
Predictably, the release of “Vysotsky” is boosting interest in the legendary singer and actor. It is likely to bring heavier rotation of his songs, including cover versions, on the radio, re-runs of films in which he starred and various Vystosky-themed events.
One of the most interesting events is the exhibition “Shemyakin. Vysotsky. Dve Sudby” (“Shemyskin. Vysotsky. Two Destinies”), at the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts. The show features 42 illustrations by artist Mikhail Shemyakin of Vladimir Vysotsky’s poems and songs, sketches, Vysotsky’s manuscripts and letters to Shemyakin.
According to the organizers, the exhibition is “a story of the meeting and cooperation of two Russians who happened to meet in Paris.”
“Their unquestionable talent and belonging to common cultural roots, their immense internal energy made them very close to each other, ‘alloyed’ their souls,” reads a statement from the organizers on the exhibition’s web site.