DEAN REED: American Rebel
Roberts first saw Dean Reed in Moscow at Red Square in 1979. Reed was been mobbed by hundred of fans. "Oh my god, that's Dean Reed," Roberts's interpreter shrieked. "Who's Dean Reed?" Roberts asked. "He's the most famous American in the world," the interpreter replied. Intrigued, Roberts eventually contacted Reed, the all-American-boy-turned-socialist-rockstar, and he agreed to collaborated on a documentary. They began shooting in 1981.
On June 17, 1986 Reed's death in East Germany was reported by the press. Reed presumably drowned, although authorities - and Roberts - are still investigating the circumstances. Roberts must now decide if and how to incorporate Reed's death in the film.
American Rebel is a powerful biographical statement of Reed and his beliefs.
"The only film the Jewish Defense League and the Jerry Falwell group and the neo-Nazis will all picket at the same time," is how Will Roberts describes his latest film, "American Rebel".
He may well be right. "American Rebel" is the story of Dean Reed, the socialist singer, actor and director who became the 'most famous American in the world' to the East bloc, but who remained a virtual unknown in his native United States. In tracing Reed's career from Hollywood in the '50s to East Germany in the '80s, director Will Roberts brings to the screen - with humor and vigor - a sympathetic viewpoint of socialist cultures.
The Reed story is an extraordinary one. Born in 1938 on a chicken farm in Lakewood, Colorado, Reed went to Hollywood in the late '50s where he recorded minor hits on the Capitol label. One of the hits, "A Summer Romance", topped the charts of South America. In 1962, Reed went there on a promotional tour. When he arrived he was mobbed by thousands of fans. He remained in South America until 1966. And he witnessed South America's turbulent class struggles and extreme poverty he gradually became politicized. "There are three types of people," Reed explains. "There are blind people who do not want to see the truth, there are capitalists, and there are revolutionaries. I was neither blind nor was I a capitalist, so I became a revolutionary." From that point events move rapidly.
As a commited socialist to the cause of the working class, Reed's fame spread beyond Latin America. Singing a mixture of protest songs and rock'n'roll, he charmed audiences throughout Europe and East Germany. In 1966, he visited Russia where according to Dean's father, Cyril Reed, he introduced the Russians to rock'n'roll. Reed increasingly participated in various struggles around the world, which took him from Vietnam to Chile to the Middle East. (The film includes a scene privately serenading Yasser Arafat with "Ghost Riders in the Sky".)
Reed is the only American to be awarded the Lenin prize of Art. Although he retained his U.S. passport he never returned to live permanently in America, marrying and settling in East Germany.
Although this is a film about a socialist, Roberts is not to attempting to advocate a socialist position. Instead "American Rebel" is an exhilarating portrait of an artist who had the ability to give voice to the goals and aspirations of those he sang to. Whether Reed was performing "Tutti Frutti" in Moscow or protest songs to Latin American workers, his audiences clearly loved him. One young Muscovite said, "Well, he's a good guy, one of us, a worker."
The most powerful scene in the film demonstrates the merging of art and politics in Reed's life. Having been permitted to go to Chile in 1983 on condition that he would not sing any political songs, Reed defies the government, and by invoking murdered President Allende's name awakens the audience of Chilean mine workers to a renewed sense of their struggle against oppression. Both Reed and Roberts went to jail for their defiance.
This affirmative spirit is the essence of both the film and its director.
Through watching the interaction between Reed and his audience, whether in Siberia, Helsinki, East Germany, Moscow, Nicaragua or Chile, socialism is shown in a positive light. Given today's political climate, this becomes in itself almost a political act.
In setting out to make an upbeat film, Roberts chose not to incorporate those parts of the Reed story that would detract from that approach. This affirmative approach excludes elements that would inevitably have made the film more powerful. It is the film's major flaw. For example, two month after he was interviewed by the filmmaker, Dean's father, Cyril Reed, commited suicide, unable to pay his medical bills. Considering it tangential to the film's uplifting motif, Roberts never mentions it in the film. Yet throughout the film it is Cyril Reed who provides the American capitalist viewpoint. That he shot himself because he could not afford to live in the country he defended is a supreme irony, and one which gives weight and credence to his son's socialist point of view. Had Roberts included the suicide into the structure of the film, it would be undoubtedly have made for a more powerful film. A western audience would be forced to evaluate the tenet's of its capitalist system. As it is the complacency of the audience remains unchallenged.
Nevertheless, "American Rebel" is an outstanding achievement - an opinion not shared by many other critics.
Almost as fascinating as the film itself is the critics' response to it. By and large they hate it. Arlynn Nelhaus of the Denver Post was so outraged by the film that she resorted to insulting the audience enjoying it. "The audience sat as contentedly as cows mooing in a sunny pasture ... the thought of the Denverites being naive patsies for travelling con men is pathetic." Critics have labelled the film 'propaganda', ignoring its obvious filmic merit.
"American Rebel" is a bold film, conceived in dramatic terms, an approach far too rare in documentaries. Narration is kept to a minimum - there is no authorial comment on the part of the filmmaker. Roberts gives Reed the platform, and his story emerges through interviews, film clips (often hilarious ones, of Reed's spaghetti western days) and concert footage. The film encapsulates all Reed's energy and drive. In bringing the voyage of this politically commited artist to the screen, Roberts shows that it is possible to merge ones life with ones ideals and that is ultimately why "American Rebel" is an outstanding achievement.