East Side Story (1997)
Directed by Dana Ranga
There are some concepts so goofy as to be irresistible. East Side Story is one of them.
It's a documentary about . . . Communist movie musicals.
Yes. Communists liked musicals, too, and the film takes footage from them to make an entertaining glimpse of a side of the Iron Curtain that most people don't know existed.
The clips range from charming to just plain bizarre. There are the singers sailing a boat in Volga Volga (Stalin's favorite film). The woman pig herders telling her pigs to eat up and get fat. The farmworkers singing as they harvest wheat in Cossack of the Kuban River (perhaps the second greatest grain harvesting scene in film). Midnight Review, where the songs comment on how hard it is to make a socialist musical.
And, inevitably, a real title that sounds like it's a Mad Magazine parody of a Soviet musical: Tractor Drivers.
The footage is amazing, especially for the Soviet films. There just something bizarre about people singing as they work (but then, in some ways, it's no stranger than people singing in an American musical).
After Stalin's death, East Germany became the heart of the Marxist musical: Hot Summer is the German Communist version of Beach Party. You really expect Frankie Avalon to show up.
In addition to the footage, there are interviews with critics, moviegoers, and some of the actors and actresses (including Karin Schroeder, "The Doris Day of the East"). The films on the screen were lighthearted, but they were all a major battle to produce. The censors thought this was all pretty dicey material and forced the filmmakers to work hard to get approval both beforehand and after the film was shot. One German film, My Wife Wants to Sing was only released because one of the songs got onto the radio, creating public demand for the movie.
The movie is vastly entertaining, when you're not staring at the screen in disbelief. And, as the film asks, "Who know how things would have turned out if socialism could just have been more fun?"
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