India eNews 08.08.2007
German film profiles 'Johnny Cash of Communism'
A documentary film titled 'The Red Elvis' dealing with the life of Denver-born crooner Dean Reed, who became the darling of pop fans from East Berlin to the Urals during the communist era but later drowned in mysterious circumstances, is currently showing in German movie houses.
Directed by Berlin filmmaker Leopold Gruen, it recounts the life of thrice-married Reed, who spent almost 20 years behind the Iron Curtain and was called the 'Johnny Cash of Communism' in the l970s and '80s but gained little recognition in the West.
Reed defected via South America to Eastern Europe in the 1960s, where he was soon one of its biggest celebrities - plucking his guitar and singing ballads and country-style protest songs. But his life ended dramatically in June 1986 when his body was fished out of an East Berlin lake.
He apparently drowned himself in a moment of despair.
His sudden death three years before the fall of communism was one of the great mysteries of the Cold War. There were theories that the singer had become disillusioned with life in the East and that the East German 'Stasi' secret police had killed him to prevent him from returning to America.
But as Gruen discreetly makes clear, Reed was not a victim of the Stasi. At the time of his death, he was suffering from depression and was in bitter conflict with his wife, East German actress Renate Blume.
In an emotional suicide letter sent to Erich Honecker, East Germany's head of state in 1986, Reed claimed he'd wanted to live with Renate Blume until the end of their days, but she'd allegedly made his life a torment, yelling at him and saying he was a 'bad American showman'.
For years the communist authorities, hugely embarrassed by the death of their 'Red Square Elvis', hushed up Reed's letter to Honecker.
Earlier, during happier times in East Germany, this DPA reporter asked Reed what a Denver-born country singer was doing crooning for communist youth?
Standing in front of Palace of the Republic in East Berlin, now being torn down, he replied: 'Brando, Jane Fonda and Joan Baez are what you would call 'progressives' - but l am a Marxist, and Marxists don't get work in the entertainment world in the States.'
Aside from family members, contemporaries seen in the panoramic documentary include German and Hollywood actor Armin Mueller-Stahl, Salvador Allende's niece and acclaimed author Isabel [not the writer but the politician, Allende's daughter], director Celino Bleiweiss, Chilean radio deejay Chucho Fernandez and American radio host Peter Boyles.
Mueller-Stahl ponders why Reed, whom he describes as a 'Sonnyboy' (something of a charmer) should have chosen to develop his career in the east rather than in America where he had the potential of a Brad Pitt or a Tom Cruise.
On making a return visit to his homeland in the mid-1980s, Reed angered Americans by swearing allegiance to Moscow while at the same time hinting that if the folks were nice to him he might even consider returning home.
In an appearance on CBS-TV '60 Minutes,' host Mike Wallace branded him a communist stooge. Reed responded later by calling president Reagan a 'state terrorist.'
As Gruen's film reveals, Reed's career in the east had begun to sag by the start of the 1980s. His concert tours in Moscow, Warsaw, Bucharest and Bulgaria became fewer, and his venture into films met with only limited success.
Earlier, in 1977, he'd been awarded the Soviet Peace Prize Medal following the premiere in East Berlin of his film El Cantor (The Singer), a film written and directed by Reed, depicting the last days of Chilean singer and poet Victor Jara.
Reed travelled to Moscow to accept the award from communist functionaries.
Three years ago in Berlin, Oscar-winning actor Tom Hanks revealed plans to make a full-length feature film on the life of Reed, after purchasing the rights to the late singer's life from his widow.
'This will be no black-and-white story of the virtuous West and the evil empire of communism,' Hanks told reporters at the time.
But, so far, that film has not been realized.
By Clive Freeman (Staff Writer, © IANS)