Judge Daryl Loomis has never been a cab driver or a sax player, but his car horn does play "My Funny Valentine."
You'd thrive in the sub-zero weather of Siberia without matches.
The post-Glasnost Soviet Union was a nation stuck between two worlds. While some still embraced old Soviet values, many were desperately trying to modernize and westernize. Increasingly free speech facilitated these changes but, as a result of these freedoms, many of the deep troubles with the nation became exposed. In response to these changes and the contrast between the old and the new, director Pavel Lounguine (Luna Park) created his first film, Taxi Blues, a brilliant study of this new society, for all its good and ills, through the eyes of a blue collar worker and an artist. While they match like oil and water, their differences begin to fade in light of the realization that they are both truly Soviet.
Facts of the Case
Driving a bunch of drunken partiers might seem like a great time for poor cab driver Shlykov (Piotr Zaitchenko, Storm over Russia) but he doesn't seem to enjoy it very much, especially when one of them, saxophonist Lyosha (Piotr Mamonov, Anna Karamazoff) stiffs him on a large fare. Shlykov tries to get past the slight, but cannot and seeks Lyosha out, stealing his saxophone for collateral. This isn't good enough for him, though, and he finally forces Lyosha to work for him as a virtual slave to pay off the debt both monetarily and morally.
The Moscow presented in Taxi Blues is a strange and filthy place, but one that feels realistic in every way. Of course, much good existed in the city as a whole, but the good is not what Longuine concerns himself with. Instead we are faced with the poor, the debauched, the drunk, trying to live their lives in ways that are ever-changing, but never seem to get better for them. The film begins with us in the driver's seat of Shlykov's cab. We drive through the night watching fireworks blast in the sky and office buildings with certain lights on to spell "CCCP," listening to a wailing free-jazz saxophone. This is a modern Moscow we witness along with the two people in the front seats, our two lead characters are at once the beneficiaries and the victims of this new Soviet Union.
Shlykov is a very average, if thoroughly angry, blue collar cab driver who makes his meager living driving people like Lyosha around and getting his aggression out by hard workouts in his meager single room apartment. Shlykov, simply put, lives and does little else besides. His life is hard; he is poor and works hard, true pleasure is a rare occurrence. When Lyosha who, while never presented as rich, is free and fun-loving, never having worked a hard day in his life starts pestering him in his cab and, moreover, stiffs him on a tab he should, by all rights, be able to pay, it flies in the face of everything Shlykov lives for. This is an unforgivable offense that must be paid in blood. Shlykov is an interesting character, though. He looks like a hard man; his workouts are violent displays. He could easily have taken it out of Lyosha in literal blood, but he'd rather teach a lesson, which he also displays in a later (though more violent) scene with some teenage malcontents.
Shlykov doesn't actually understand Lyosha, however. For what Shlykov sees on the surface, it seems to him that the life of a sax player is all fun and games. He does not see that Lyosha is dirt poor, essentially homeless, and a raging alcoholic, to the extent that he will gladly drink aftershave to kill the pain. He actually has a decent gig in a studio with a large group of various artists but, when Shlykov steals his sax at the beginning, Lyosha is reduced to badly playing a guitar, busking on the street to pay for a bite to eat and a little vodka. When he is forced into indentured servitude, he shockingly jumps at the chance to work, hard as it is, have a roof to sleep under, and absorb some real attention, even if the one giving him that despises him. He is a wonderful saxophone player, blowing free-jazz hell out of that horn. People love him and call him a genius. Genius, however, doesn't pay the bills but working for Shlykov does. It's a hard lesson for Lyosha, though one he gladly accepts once he gets used to the idea.
As a character study, Taxi Blues is a brilliant film. The sadness of their lives is thoroughly reflected in the eyes, the posture, and the actions of both of the lead players as well as the supporting cast, who are universally great. The contrast between the old Soviet lifestyle and the new post-Glasnost world is palpable in the story, the characters, and the filming style alike. Lounguine fills the film with seedy characters, all of whom feel absolutely human and most of whom, hard as it is to see sometimes, are deeply good people, no matter how troubled they are. The jazz soundtrack permeates the film, both in the background and in Lyosha's performances, taking the form of sadness, fright, and sexuality all on one instrument. Taxi Blues is a slice of life character study, to be sure, but it goes far beyond the two principles into the intricate depths of a world that the country still experiences.
Koch Lorber's DVD could have been better, a common complaint, but they do release lesser known films, so there's a tradeoff. The video looks its age. There has been little restoration done on the film. Some of the dingy look may come from Lounguine's vision of the Soviet Union, but some comes from age and wear on the print. The colors are faded and often grainy while black levels vary greatly and are sometimes muddled. The stereo sound is a little better, though not much. The dialog is mostly clear and the great jazz soundtrack is reasonably loud, but there is some background noise and little to no separation between the speakers. I would love to have seen a commentary, especially given the historic significance of its time and place. I would love to have had a soundtrack disc, an extra quite valuable to me that has become more common recently. Typical of Koch, however, the only extra is a trailer. Taxi Blues deserves more.
Taxi Blues is a phenomenal character study full of depth and beauty. Realistically filmed and incredibly performed, it is surprising that this is not held up as a classic of Russian cinema; classic is a term that absolutely fits.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Koch Lorber
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