Volga-Volga (1938), the third musical comedy made by the Soviet director-composer team of Grigory Aleksandrov and Isaak Dunayevsky, is one of the most emblematic films of the Soviet 1930s. Indeed, it won its makers a Stalin Prize in 1941 and was supposedly Stalin’s favorite film. But Volga-Volga was also a success with Soviet viewers: they flocked by the millions to see the film, which was still playing in theaters at the outbreak of war in June 1941. As a combination of slapstick comedy and memorable musical numbers that addressed an appropriately Soviet theme, the film clearly spoke to both the masses and officials. But what does Volga-Volga have to say? The film tells the story of a musical “civil war” between a folk ensemble and a classical orchestra, both of which head to Moscow to participate in the national musical Olympiad. Due to “accidental” circumstances, the two ensembles eventually join forces and win the competition with a performance of the “Song about the Volga.”
Though this merger of musical forces and styles seems to serve predominantly comedic purposes, the “story of a song” can also be read as a commentary on the development of music in the Soviet Union in the 1930s. In a period marked by debates and uncertainties in all realms of musical production about what exactly Socialist Realist music was to be, Aleksandrov and Dunayevsky offer as their solution a musical practice that advocates inclusivity by seeking to combine features from many types of music into a distinctly Soviet blend. This thematization of music is enhanced by the nature of the film musical, whose stylistic reliance on music as a bridge between real and ideal worlds embodies the aesthetic demands of Socialist Realism. Furthermore, the film can be understood as an instance of what film scholar Miriam Hansen calls “vernacular modernism,” namely, the adaptation of an American cinematic model into a foreign context as a tool for reflecting and refracting experiences of modernity.
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