Left star a stranger in his own land
A film by Will Roberts
By Joyce Stoller
At the 1979 Moscow International Film Festival U.S. filmmaker Will Roberts saw a man being mobbed by hundreds of people in Red Square.
"Oh my god," shrieked Roberts' interpreter. "It's Dean Reed!"
"Who is Dean Reed?" asked Roberts.
The Russian interpreter was incredulous. "I can't believe you don't know. Why, he's the most famous American in the world!"
Roberts recorded the story of Dean Reed, All-American boy turned socialist superstar, known and loved by millions of people all over the world, but unknown in his own country.
"American Rebel," screened at the Mill Valley Festival in California, is an extraordinary film that brings to light both Reed's personality and the phenomenon of his being literally and figuratively blacked out in the U.S.
TOPS THE CHARTS
Reed was born an a chicken farm in Colorado in 1938, and went to Hollywood in the late 1950s. There his sunny good looks and affable manner won him roles in TV and a recording contract with Capitol Records. In 1962, one of his singles hit the top of the charts in South America and he went there on a promotion tour.
In Argentina and Chile he played to soccer fields of fans by day, and dinner clubs filled with the rich and powerful at night. Speaking of this period, he says, "I could see the great differences of justice and injustice, poverty and wealth. In South America there are three types of people. There are blind people who do not want to see the truth, there are capitalists, and there are revolutionaries. I was neither blind nor I was a capitalist, so I became a revolutionary."
Reed, idolized as a pop protest singer, remained in South America. "You can't live there for five years, if you have eyes and a conscience, without changing," he says. "They have 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."
In 1966 Reed was invited to the Soviet Union where he introduced the Russians in rock'n' roll.
Reed increasingly participated in various struggles around the world, using his fame to push his politics. In 1962 he used his own money to buy ads in Latin American papers urging people to write letters to Kennedy and Khrushchev asking them to stop building nuclear weapons. This led the CIA to place him under constant surveillance.
Reed was eventually jailed for political activity in Venezuela and Argentina and released only when he agreed to leave. In 1970, he created a sensation by washing a U.S. flag in front of the embassy in Santiago, Chile "to atone for American crimes in Vietnam and South America." He remained in Chile until 1973, working on Salvador Allende's populist campaign.
After the coup, Reed fled to Eastern Europe, where he was wholeheartedly welcomed. He learned five languages, and through his concerts and his films brought U.S. culture and the lesson of the U.S. democratic and revolutionary heritage to people there.
In "American rebel" there are scenes of Reed singing about Sacco and Vanzetti in East Germany, and "We Shall Overcome" in Moscow. With a guitar in one hand and a gun in the other, Reed brought his message of solidarity and hope to Vietnam, Chile, Lebanon, Bangladesh and Nicaragua. The film includes shots of Yasser Arafat tapping along to Reed's rendition of "Ghost Riders in the Sky" and Reed playing to Sandinistas in the war zones of Nicaragua.
MERGING ART AND POLITICS
In a powerful scene Reed demonstrates the merging of art and politics. He was allowed to return to Chile in 1983 in condition that he not sing political songs. Defying the government order, he invoked the name of Allende in front of an audience of Chilean miners. The next day, he was surrounded by armed men as he sang "Venceremos" at the University in Santiago. Both Reed and filmmaker Roberts went to jail for that defiance.
Reed, the only North American ever receive the Soviet Union's Lenin Prize for Art, wrote directed and starred in 18 films. These include "Viva Zapata," "Bloodbrothers," a Bulgarian film about the U.S. cavalry's massacre of Indians at Sand Creek, Colorado, "Sing, Cowboy, sing," one of the most popular films ever produced in East Germany, and "El Cantor," the story of Chilean folksinger Victor Jara.
After viewing "American Rebel" one might conclude that Reed's internationalism is naïve. But it is deeply-felt. He preferred to live and work among people who shared his socialist views rather than work to influence events in the U.S. As he says in the film, "I believe that art, sports and science are international, and that all people should have the right to know other people's culture in addition to their own."
To this day "the most famous American in the world," who played to sold-out concerts in 32 countries, is virtually unknown here, and it is no accident. As one young citizen of Moscow says in the film, "I called up the Voice of America and asked them to play a song by the American singer Dean Reed. They said 'there is no American singer named Dean Reed.'" The powers-that-be have apparently decided no to cover what they can't defend.
While in the U.S. last fall for the premier of "American Rebel," Reed said, "I would love to come back to the United States if I could be productive, creative, retain my dignity and make the kind of films I believe in. When I was in Hollywood it was a place of fear and exploitation, a prostitution camp, where very few people could keep their integrity. I'm not ready to come back and do Coca-Cola ads to make a living."
Shortly after Reed announced on "60 minutes" his intention to move back to U.S. this fall, he was found, fully clothed, at the bottom of a lake less then a mile from his home in East Germany. At the time of his death Reed was hard at work on his 19th film, a joint Soviet-East German production about the struggle of American Indians at Wounded Knee in the early 1970s.
Reed's death is a tragedy for the U.S. left, which doesn't even know that it has lost a genuine American hero. As a political artist Reed has the ability to knit the ties of solidarity, and give voice to the goals and aspirations of millions of people around the world.
To date "American Rebel" has not been able to find a distributor in the U.S. To rent the film write to Will Roberts[...]