|Arts Pages 06.11.1985|
Bigger than Elvis, hotter than Frankie...
Overseas teen idol Dean Reed comes home again
By Bill Horrigan
"In 1979, I had been invited to the Moscow International Film Festival. And I was walking through Red Square with my Russian interpreter when we saw this man mobbed by hundreds of people for his autograph. That's an unusual sight in the Soviet Union because not even Elizabeth Taylor is mobbed. No Western stars are mobbed. And my interpreter said, 'Oh my god, it's Dean Reed!' and I said, 'Who's Dean Reed?' And my interpreter said, 'Who is Dean Reed? I can't believe you don't know. Why, he's the most famous American in the world!'"
"Living in our land of information, I thought surely I would've heard of Dean Reed. Naturally, I was a little suspicious. So I started to do research."
Six years later, the fruits of documentary filmmaker Will Roberts' research have produced An American Rebel, a provocative portrait of a native son now settled on other shores. Thursday night Roberts will introduce his film at a benefit screening for the Honeywell Project at thee U of M's Willey Hall. By his side will be Dean Reed himself, performing here for the first time since 1978. Presumably the two of them will clarify how it could come to pass for "the most famous American in the world" to be virtually unknown in his own country.
Just who is he? A biographical profile at its sketchiest: Dean Reed is a 46-year-old, Colorado-bred performer - singer, actor, writer, director - who enjoyed modest success here in the late '50s and early '60s as a pop singer ("I Kissed a Queen," "A Summer Romance"). In South America, however, he was idolized as a second Elvis Presley, and he lived there from 1961-1966.
During those years, his political views progressed to the left. "You can't live there for five years, if you have eyes and a conscience, without changing," he says. "They have these dictatorships against the will of the people only because the U.S. government supports them financially, militarily and politically. That was a great shock to a boy from Colorado, and I began to change."
His pop idolatry spread to the Soviet bloc, and in 1966 he introduced the Russian masses to rock music. In the late '60s, living in Italy, he starred in eight Italian films. He has toured most of the Soviet-aligned nations, and is the only American to have received the Soviet government's Lenin Prize for art. He now lives in East Germany with his wife, actress Renate Blume-Reed, and their children. His current project is a film about the siege of Wounded Knee; an East German-Soviet co-production titled Bloody Heart, it will be shot next year in Russia, and Reed, who is co-author and co-director, will star with his wife.
Reed visited the Twin Cities in 1978 when Marv Davidov of the Honeywell Project brought him to show his film, El Cantor, about Chilean folksinger Victor Jara. His visit coincided with a demonstration against the construction of a power line in rural Wright Country, and Reed and nine others were jailed for criminal trespassing. Their subsequent hunger strike attracted a Soviet TV crew to document what they regarded as a human rights violation in Carter's America, and the jail was bombarded with cards from Soviet teen-agers demanding their idol's freedom.
Those are the facts, such as they are. Insofar as Reed has a public presence in this country, it's simply as a folk singer who's defected. People magazine, for the instance, contended in 1976 that "from the Berlin Wall to Siberia, Dean Reed is Communism's tops in pop." The New York Times last year called him "the Johnny Cash of Communism."
These labels don't sit well with Reed, who avows no political affiliations. "I'm a U.S. citizen and a resident of East Germany," he says, "I haven't defected or asked for asylum. But my wife is East Germany's most famous actress and she speaks only German. If we lived elsewhere she'd have to give up her career. Speaking four languages, I can work in about any country. I live in East Germany because of my wife - for reasons of love."
Reed's only political membership is on Finland's World Peace Council, and he regards himself as "a puppet of nobody. I'm just an artist with an obligation to use my art and my fame for world peace and social justice." While believing the world's problems can only be redressed through socialism, he rejects the Soviet system as a model, arguing instead that each country must forge its own version.
Reed also chafes at being identified as a protest singer. "Maybe 15 or 20 percent of what I sing are political songs," he says. "The rest are love songs, rock, country. If I only sang 'We Shall Overcome,' that would be a half-truth. I want people to laugh and to cry, to inspire them to continue, which is sometimes difficult, and to give them knowledge."
"Say what you want, but my life has been unique - the fact of my being a superstar in South America and in the socialist countries. I'm a saleable product in one-third of the world, and I would love to come back here and be productive while keeping my dignity and ideals. Yet nobody has said, 'let's try this guy in America.'"
Documentarian Will Roberts gingerly broaches the "conspiracy of silence" issue. "Dean and I differ. He's subject to much criticism because he lives in East Germany, and people here see that as almost a traitorous activity. But I think he's a typical American character in that he's maverick-oriented. He strays from the crowd and in that sense, he's a classic American character. But, as it says at the end of the film, nobody knows him in his own home town."
Editor's note: An Amerian Rebel, the story of Dean Reed, will be screened 7 p.m. Thurs. only (11/7), Willey Hall, U of M, Mpls. Reed will introduce the film in person.