"Never take off the mask."
"Never take off the mask."

Unmasked: “The Naked Truth About Zhiguli Band”

However we look at it, the cinema is not what it used to be. And no, I’m not talking only about the polit-correct “Oscars” which get more banal and less interesting year after year (and speaking about them and since there’s no way I wouldn’t mention it – hats off and my greatest sympathies to what Maria Bakalova did, contrary to everything that’s been said about Sasha Baron Cohen’s latest creation). I’m not even talking about the fact that the worldwide pandemic situation almost “killed” the seventh art or at least the venues where we had the opportunity to enjoy it, and now movies and their fans are slowly and insecurely coming back, if they ever decide to do so…

…Which brings us to the latest and probably the biggest trend in modern cinema – the streaming platforms. No matter what else is said, the truth is that by all means the future lies within them and more and more film companies (and big ones, for that matter) are heading towards releasing their newest productions in such platforms where, at a price, of course, you can get the same things that you can get in the movie salon…

…Or can you? Where’s the atmosphere that such a trip to the cinema used to create? Where’s the opportunity to gather with more people and discuss, apologies, live through what you’ve just witnessed? Where’s the magic, the different thing that’s not staying at home in front of the screen which we’re doing all day anyways nowadays? I don’t know, maybe I’m too old-fashioned already but no matter how prolific such models of screening are, to me the cinema is still the deepest experience of what’s happening in front of you and as long as there’s something I can watch there, I’ll do it with pleasure.

And since we answered the question “How?”, let’s take a look at the question “What?” as well. And here, I believe, lies the biggest current problem of the movie industry – the ability to quickly and lucratively distribute digital movies brings out to the market tons of, excuse me for the next word, trash, which, even sadder, includes quite popular and loved actors whose salary is probably more than half of the budget of the movie they take part in. Internet piracy doesn’t help as well and it’s obvious that it’s not a problem from yesterday but it also makes the cinema literally redundant at times since, to say it indirectly, it goes over the “subscription” step of streaming platforms and allows everyone (well, almost, unless you get caught and have to pay a fine) to enjoy (recently, more like feel disgusted from) Hollywood’s latest and such

But enough with the hot air, let’s get on a more positive wave. If not else, everything said so far has its bright side – I now look with a whole different perspective at modern Bulgarian cinema. I have to admit that I’ve never really been a big fan, as unpatriotic as it sounds (with some exceptions, of course), but I’m not sure whether it was the fact that piracy of such productions is much rarer or because they are the main supporting branches of the Bulgarian movie industry, or just because I really, really wanted to go see something at the cinema in order to feel that emotion again, I went with solid expectations.

It won’t be enough to say that the movie we’ll talk about today (and to which the whole review should have been dedicated, but anyways) managed to completely justify them and surprise me in the most pleasant way. A great attendance and an undisputed leader in the Bulgarian box office since its premiere – this is the proof that only supports the statement above and it makes me happy that a lot of other people have also seen and enjoyed what I had the opportunity to. In the next several paragraphs I’ll try to convince you too in the “naked truth” why you should give the “Zhiguli” band a chance and hear their swan song.

Ever since I saw the trailer which I came across on TV, I was intrigued by what exactly the movie is, as well as by the acting cast that breathed life into the hit ’80s band. I also liked the fact that what I’m usually used to, i.e. the trailer telling the whole movie’s story in 2 minutes, didn’t happen here. I entered the movie salon without any clear idea what to expect and came out of it delighted with what’s been shown to me. “The Naked Truth About Zhiguli Band” has everything necessary for such a genre which is more like a dramedy but some people might have described as a tragicomedy – an established director, a perfectly chosen and collaborative cast, an easy to follow and very well presented, even though a bit predictable plot, a wide target audience and last but not least – an amazing musical background with an original soundtrack and lots and lots of rock.

Victor Bozhinov’s talent and vision, as well as his experience with large-scale for the Bulgarian standards productions such as “Undercover” and “Heights” are visible in every scene. The movie is a collision on a lot of levels – dreams against reality, the old versus the new generation, the classic against the modern understanding for music and its influence, family versus career and so on, and so on. The most pleasing thing was that I also saw both teenagers and adults who were experiencing together the events happening on the screen without hearing any unnecessary comments or dull jokes. This only showed how attention-grabbing the movie was and how its success formula worked no matter of the age, simply because it succeeded in pleasing even the more specific movie taste.

Without going into specific details, the whole story is built around the topic for the transition, which the movie starts with, putting the accent on the “nasty stuff”, on the fact that something good has collapsed in its sublime moment and now, 30 years later, all involved are hit hard by reality and by their own daily problems which don’t allow them to fulfill their desires. Here we can see pretty well intertwined some current faces and places that recently became famous which I’ll leave for you to find. And in this exact moment the plot’s key appears, the person, who, driven by nostalgia or their own motives and goals, stimulates the gathering of the different pieces of the musical whole in order to help the group achieve and experience their renaissance.

Naturally, all of this is followed by a lot of personality clashes and awakened old feelings; reignited conflicts “backstage” but also happiness and emotions on the stage itself where everyone lives their own moment. Vanya Nikolova and Neli Dimitrova are direct and uncensored in what they tell as a story and they build it along with a series of comical situations to lighten up the mood in an otherwise tense for the band environment. The plot brings like one third of the movie’s charge and does it well because in the end the bitter taste left after what had happened so many years ago is washed away and the common goals and vision for something sweeter and grand reemerge and even though our heroes don’t really fulfill the old dreams entirely, simply because half  life has already passed, for starters, they still manage to get quite close to achieving that.

This charge wouldn’t keep the movie alive, though, unless someone showed up to breathe life into the story. Mihail Bilalov (Fori) appears as the frontman who combines (and at the same time somewhat splits) the pieces of the “Zhiguli” puzzle by playing very well the role of a father fighting both on the personal and on the career front. That is the moment when Phillip (Vaso) and Gerasim (Puhi) make their appearance as well, each of them convincingly presenting their characters who have found their way to deal with life. Both enter dramatic situations – completely justified conflicts with Fori and nasty health incidents which not only intensify the situation but are also presented in such a believeable way that it really gets you into “the movie zone”. A nice addition to that was Dimitar Rachkov who is pretty reserved here and successfully avoids making his Kish character a parody (after all, it would be weird if it was a surgeon with the actor’s usual behaviour) and also the jokes from and around him happen to work and integrate well with the movie’s atmosphere.

On the female side of the cast we get Lilia Maraviglia and Irini Zhambonas as the main acting characters who enter with a super strong performance and blow up every scene in which they appear, especially when it’s about singing or a stage performance or a direct clash between them. I liked it that here we saw a couple of women who could burst of kindness and innocence at one moment and at the other they could basically kill you with their stare and clearly claim their stage presence (both metaphorically and literally speaking). Klimentina Fartzova also manages pretty well to find her spot in the whole picture and successfully takes up the baton from her older colleagues not only in a musical (movie) aspect but also in an actual one, promising a bright future for the young generation of Bulgarian actors.

All the others that I haven’t mentioned above shouldn’t be ignored since they also play their role in the plot development, as well as in the different personal chapters of Bozhinov’s characters, and contribute enough to bring the other third of the charge that the movie brings with itself – Maya Bezhanska, Paraskeva Dzhukelova and Iliana Lazarova, even with rather short screen time, appear at crucial moments in their better halves’ movie development to increase even further their revealing potential whereas Avgust Popov, the single reason for this whole concert thing to happen at all, performs great as well in his portrayal of a die-hard fan of the musical band.

The last (but probably the most important) thing that makes the production so positively charging and relaxing is the reason why it’s considered a part of the “musical” genre. The fact itself, that all of the scenes are shot during a pandemic in a limited amount of time and that the actors have literally learned to play instruments and have performed at a real concert as the fake group only to give the authenticity that vibes from the movie, is a proof enough of how much will and effort have been put into the whole project. The hard-hitting rock sounds, created by Petar Dundakov and Joro Georgiev, accompanied by the great lyrics written by Ivaylo Valchev, actually create the feeling for a completely real and alive rock band that has rather been lost somewhere in the past and has re-emerged on the horizon again than never existed.

The short cameo of one of the most popular and successful Bulgarian pop-folk stars reinforced even more that feeling for getting further away from the classic Bulgarian music and the gradual acceptance of the modern musical culture but at the same time served as somewhat of a wall which our heroes managed to overcome in order to properly bring us into the ’80s atmosphere. Every moment in which the music started playing during the movie, it gave me the chills and a clear understanding of why I like rock music so much and the rock music of that era, in particular.

“The Naked Truth About Zhiguli Band” is probably the freshest thing I’ve recently seen and it definitely has some moments that I haven’t really seen in any recent Hollywood production, for example. With its uncompromising dialogues, funny (and not so funny) twists, strong acting and a powerful dose of rock, it managed to capture our hearts (both children and parents’) which is a clear sign that the movie surpasses the aims that it sets for itself and manages to completely pass on to the audience the bright mood and the messages that it bears.

Don’t know about you, but I’d love to go to a concert of the “Zhiguli” band, I’d buy and read the book about the naked truth in their story and I’d also go see (this time, however, with much bigger expectations) a potential sequel of their tale. But for now I’d just recommend you to go to the cinema not only to support the Bulgarian one but also to enjoy one of the most fascinating movies I’ve seen in a while.

‘Cause one thing I can tell you for sure – in this movie at least I saw the renaissance not only of the musical band in question but also of the Bulgarian cinema and I’m certain that because of movies like this, the dawn of the industry here in general is “not today”.

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