J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Saturday, December 23, 2017

Holiday Gift Guide ’17: Free to Rock

How is it remotely possible the Plastic People of the Universe have yet to be inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame? They are not merely one of the most enduring European hard rock bands in history. Their arrest and imprisonment directly inspired the Charter 77 movement, thrusting a little-known Czechoslovakian playwright named Vaclav Havel into international prominence. They’re still rocking today. The story of how the PPU and their fellow underground rockers helped undermine the Communist system is chronicled in Jim Brown’s Free to Rock (trailer here), narrated by Kiefer Sutherland, which is now available on DVD, just in time for Christmas.

During the Cold War, America and the West enjoyed an overwhelming soft power advantage. Radio Free Europe subtly spread an awareness of western freedom, particularly effectively with rock & roll (FYI, Voice of America did something similar with jazz). If you were a youth in the Baltics, you could listen to Elvis and the Beatles on the outlawed RFE or stick with the opera and marching music on the official State-sanctioned station. No contest.

Eventually, the Soviets realized rock & roll was maybe here to stay, so they tried to coopt the music with officially recognized, light beer versions of the rebel rock bands known as VIAs, Vocal Instrumental Ensembles (it works in the original Russian). The notorious Dean Reed (an expat American teen idol failure) was definitely a VIA act. However, Free to Rock challenges our perceptions of Dean, observing his presumptive accidental death from drowning occurred shortly after an increasingly disillusioned Reed expressed a desire to return to America.

Whether or not Reed fully deserves his treasonous reputation, there are plenty of genuine heroes in FTR. For instance, there is Andrey Makaravich, who has yet again been harassed and demonized for playing a benefit concert for Ukrainian orphans and refugees. In fact, we see many of the old Cold War-era rockers reuniting for a concert protesting the detention of Russian political prisoners, such as Pussy Riot and Khodorkovsky.

It is quite inspiring that rock took a stand against tyranny during the Cold War—and is starting to do so again under the Putin regime, but it is deeply depressing that such effort might be necessary again. It is also rather unsightly to watch Jimmy Carter take credit for the fall of Communism, because he sent the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band on a goodwill tour in 1977. Fortunately, the rest of the film is on solid historical (and moral) ground.

The DVD release of FTR comes with a bonus disk of the outtakes and supplemental material. Frankly, there is so much good stuff on disk two, it is a shame it isn’t curated better, because a lot of viewers will probably miss legendary Latvian rocker Pete Anderson visiting the KGB building where he was tortured or the profile Russian rock journalist Artemy Troitsky, who has been forced into exile in Estonia.


FTR’s subjects are true rock & roll rebels. Heck, even its expert commentator Oleg Kalugin, a former KGB General and Yeltsin ally, is currently wanted in Russia for treason. The film itself might feel like a PBS special, because it was, airing extensively this past summer. However, the stories of musicians like co-producer Stas Namin are inspiring and their music is still potent. Highly recommended as a gift for rock fans and Cold War history buffs, Free to Rock is now available on DVD, from MVD Visual.

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