With Elvis Presley’s “All Shook Up” blaring, the camera swept across the surface of the Daugava River and, panning left, revealed the skyline of Rīga’s Old Town. Oh my, I said to myself, to actually see Rī;ga in a Hollywood movie! This was a treat. Too bad the rest of Red Hot wasn’t, well, so hot.
Red Hot was director Paul Haggis’ 1993 take on a fairly familiar story line: teenagers buck authority to do what teenagers want to do. In this case, the setting was Soviet Latvia in 1959. A group of music students discover the forbidden fruit of American rock ‘n’ roll. But the film, as the videotape sleeve suggests, could just as well have been Footloose or The Commitments. In other words, if you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all.
Red Hot begins when a few 45 rpm records are smuggled into the country by Uncle Dmitri (Armin Mueller-Stahl), a seaman. He gives the records to his nephew, Alexi Fradis (Balthazar Getty). The records are ingeniously copied and the music spreads. Before long a quartet of students decides to turn a deserted industrial building into a rehearsal studio. Complicating the story are Alexi’s humble roots and his evolving love affair with Valentina Kirov (Carla Gugino), the privileged daughter of a highly placed but jaded KGB colonel (Donald Sutherland). It’s all just kid stuff until an overambitious KGB underling decides cracking a case of musical anti-Soviet propaganda might lead to his rise in power.
Admittedly, it is interesting to see acted out what scholars of culture in the Soviet era have noted: Western rock music seeped into the U.S.S.R. and was copied onto various media, including X-ray negatives. But beyond that the story is predicatable, the characters are wanting and the historical realism is skin deep.
Although the movie was filmed in Rīga (a number of scenes, such as one apparently filmed inside the National Library of Latvia or of the Dome Church, will bring nods of recognition), there is little that is Latvian about Red Hot. The characters are almost all Russians, although it appears the cast and crew counted few ethnic Russians among them. And about the only Latvians you’ll see are the back-bench actors who portray some of the students, jail guards and so forth. In one brief moment, the camera pans past a group of young musicians practicing the tune to “Tūdaliņ, tagadiņ.”
Careful viewers may catch an anachronistic glimpse of the radio and television tower on Zaķusala, visible as Alexi bicycles across the Daugava. Construction on the tower didn’t begin until 1979, two decades after the Red Hot story supposedly took place.
Still, the film no doubt provided a needed infusion of money and inspiration for local talent when Hollywood came to Rīga. For example, readers of the credits will notice that former émigré and now successful Rīga restaurateur Mārtiņš Ritiņš did the catering. Too bad the story is formulaic.
One odd thing about Red Hot has been its almost Soviet-style way of disappearing from filmographies and video stores. A search of the Web found only cursory information about the movie (one incorrectly categorizing this as a comedy), while few online stores seem to carry the film (one claimed the price was USD 93.65). This might suggest Red Hot is a “sleeper.” It’s not.
Columbia Tristar, 1993
Notes: In English. Drama, color, 95 minutes. Principal cast: Balthazar Getty, Carla Gugino, Armin Mueller-Stahl, Jan Niklas, Hugh O’Conor and Donald Sutherland; music: Peter Breiner; costumes: Judith England; editor: Nick Rotundo; director of photography: Vernon Layton; screenplay: Paul Haggis and Michael Maurer.
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