November 3rd Club April 2008

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Searching For Dean Reed

Tony Williams

“Either we all on this planet shall learn to live together in peace with one another, respecting the right of the other to search and to have other truths than our own, - or we shall all perish together. We still have that power in our hands – either to stop the arms race – or the human race. I personally feel that the human race is more important than the wealth accumulated by five percent of the privileged Americans from the arms race.” (Dean Reed, June 1, 1986 reply to attend his Colorado High School reunion)

Der Rote Elvis. (2007) Dir: Leopold Gruen. Totho Film. Berlin. DVD release, 2008.

Dean Reed: American Rebel. (1985). Dir: Will Roberts. United Documentary Films. DVD release, 2004.

Comrade Rockstar. (1992) BBC 2, Arena. 

Leopold Gruen’s recent documentary Der Rote Elvis (The Red Elvis) about American activist-singer Dean Reed (1938-1986), premiered in Berlin on 14 February, 2007. So far, it has been showing for over thirty-three weeks mostly in cinemas located in the former East Germany. The film has also been seen at film festivals and will be shown at the Philadelphia Film Festival during April, 2008. However, for most people the name of Dean Reed evokes the earlier question documentary filmmaker Will Roberts asked when he first saw Reed signing autographs on Moscow’s Red Square, “Who is Dean Reed?” He received the reply, “The most famous American in the whole world.” This fame never reached his homeland, the United States of America, for reasons which will become obvious. Roberts’s documentary also interviews a Russian fan who requested a Reed song from The Voice of America only to receive the reply that they had never heard of him. “He does not exist.” The response ironically evokes those retouched photographs of Trotsky standing near Lenin that circulated in the Stalin Era when the former became not just an “invisible man” but a Soviet version of Jacques Lacan’s “structured absence.” Der Rote Elvis, now available on DVD in Germany with foreign subtitles and extras, presents the latest examination of a deceased artist whose historical significance remains as debated today as it did in his own lifetime. For many, Dean Reed was a sincere political activist who spoke on the side of justice. Others regard him as a defector and traitor to his own country. Worse still, several critics regard him as a mediocre artist who opportunistically used the lack of Eastern access to American culture and rock and roll to support his own personal agenda and was part of an oppressive system they condemned.

Since his untimely death in 1986, debate continues over this fascinating figure in much the same manner as those conflicting views of Charles Foster Kane in Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane (1941) in the News on the March sequence where opposing voices define him as either Communist or Fascist. The newsreel quotes the title character’s simple definition of himself as an “American.” This third answer parallels the very way Dean saw himself. Despite his espousal of radical causes during the Cold War era, Dean Reed retained his American citizenship and delivered his own version of his country’s cultural entertainment values to the Eastern Bloc. He was “eine cowboy in Deutschland” delivering his own interpretation of a Hollywood Western hero usually associated with the right-wing figures of John Wayne and Roy Rogers in his own ingenious version of cinematic dialectical materialism combining Karl Marx with the idyllic version of Western Frontier justice associated with his Hollywood predecessors. Reed was the man from Colorado who extended the myth of the Frontier beyond American borders, not for those repugnant “manifest destiny” purposes of exploitation and genocide, but actually to espouse those ideals of freedom and justice enshrined in a Constitution his homeland rarely lived up to. He became a Lone Ranger for Eastern Europe as well as an (Un)Easy Rider fleeing from a Western civilization whose foreign policy he criticized. Instead he lived in a complicated relationship within an alternative culture whose politics differed from his homeland.

During his lifetime Dean Reed represented a challenge to both East and West. The three documentaries listed above engage in different forms of interpretation affected by changing events over the last two decades. Dean Reed: American Rebel appeared in the last year of its subject’s life. Filmed by his friend Will Roberts, this documentary introduces Reed to a Western audience that had scarcely heard of him. It still remains an indispensable document for anyone seriously interested in Reed. American Rebel sympathetically presents Reed’s version of the role he sought to play in the Cold War era standing up for an Eastern Bloc vilified by Ronald Reagan as the “Evil Empire”, expressing solidarity with oppressed people throughout the world whether they be Palestinians removed from their homeland or Chileans under the iron heel of American-backed dictator General Pinochet. By contrast, Der Rote Elvis presents a more heterogeneous and multi-faceted representation of Reed with several interviewees delivering ambivalent, positive, and negative interpretations. Like the little-seen 1992 BBC 2 Arena documentary Comrade Rockstar, narrated by American journalist Reggie Nadelsen based on her condescending and disrespectful 1991 biography republished in 2004 and optioned by Tom Hanks (!) for a biopic,  it concludes with Reed’s mysterious death. But it also indirectly offers options for many interpretations on the part of audiences. Did he commit suicide? Or was his death engineered by the Stasi with the co-operation of the CIA? Der Rote Elvis leaves the verdict open for viewers who wish to evaluate the evidence in their own way.

I first saw Dean Reed playing the role of unscrupulous thief Ballantine in the 1970 Italian Western Adios Sabata (a.k.a. Indio Black/ The Bounty Hunters) starring right-wing actor Yul Brynner. As the second in the series of a trilogy directed by Frank Kramer (Gianfranco Paralini) with Lee Van Cleef starring in the first and third versions, Reed made little impression on me in contrast to the main theme by Bruno Nicolai. Knowing the tendency of Italian Westerns to use American pseudonyms for native actors (e.g. “Johnny Wells” for Gian-Maria Volonte in Sergio Leone’s 1964 A Fistful of Dollars), I immediately assumed that Reed’s fair-haired figure represented the type of northern Italian embodied by Stelio Candelli in the 1966-68 BBC 1 TV series Vendetta dubbed into American dialogue. How wrong I was! On April 20th, 1986, I tuned in to the CBS television program Sixty Minutes to see a segment, ominously titled “The Defector”, devoted to this actor. Interviewed by a skeptical Mike Wallace, the sequence examined an American “who has become the Soviet version of a superstar” yearning to duplicate his success behind the Iron Curtain “with a similar success back home.” Reed believed that his lack of popularity in America derived from “a conspiracy of silence.” Representing a persona too complex and contradictory for most American viewers to understand, Reed affirmed key values that he believed his country should represent abroad especially for those suffering from injustice and oppression.

“I think I’ve been a very good American ambassador throughout the world. I’ve reached people who will never see another American, and I’ve shown them a side of America which I think they respect. Wouldn’t it be fantastic if the people of the world would re—would respect the United States for its science, for its culture, for its spiritual values, for its moral values, instead of what it pr—at present is, of being afraid and fearing it because of its military power.”

Here Reed is far from being the “defector” of the title segment, a term also used against him by Colorado talk-show host Peter Boyles in Der Rote Elvis. As well as affirming his own version of a more positive view of the Eastern Bloc most American news reports suppressed, Reed is no stooge as his following remarks show when Wallace challenges him to name three things he disagrees with in East Germany.

“I don’t agree with the bureaucracy here. I don’t a—agree with the fact that the—we are not open enough with criticism against the—the problems within the society here. I believe that there should be more individual freedoms in this country and not—(Wallace attempts to interrupt him) – not only s—socialist freedoms and collective freedoms.”

Reed earlier reminded Wallace that “revolution is not a bad word” when calling the Contras “the Benedict Arnolds of Nicaragua” and not Ronald Reagan’s “freedom fighters.” However, he also affirmed something that has always been a taboo subject in the American political unconscious since the days of the jailing of American socialist leader Eugene Debs, the Palmer Red Raids, and the Red Scare, namely the fact that his country could take a socialist direction. This direction has constantly been physically and ideologically repressed throughout American history.

“I do believe in a si—a type of socialism. Whether it is time in the United States for a type of socialist party or maybe even a social democratic party, I don’t know. I would love to go back to Colorado and be senator of Colorado.”

Reed’s excusable lack of knowledge concerning the contemporary Reaganite direction his homeland then followed defines him as a “socialist fool”, in the same way that Richard Wagner’s Parsifal is a “holy fool.”  However, both examples evoke an idealistic form of sincerity governing different types of actions in pursuing utopian quests for a Holy Grail. In Reed’s case, it involved world peace and socialism. However, his remarks concerning a recently re-elected President and footage of his 1977 visit to Yasser Arafat in Lebanon incurred angry viewer reaction. Declining to label PLO violence as terrorism, Reed instead sees it as emerging from the White House and a President he identifies with Stalin who now “has the possibilities to do the same injustices and much more by incinerating this planet through an atomic war.”

“I think its terrorism when, for example, Mr. Reagan says he’s going to make 'Star Wars’ and he’s going to give the military billions of dollars more to create more weapons. He’s putting me in terror. He’s putting --millions of people live in terror from a Third World War.”1

Contradictions occurring in this interview would appear in later documentaries devoted to Reed. Several unbiased viewers would affirm the positive values Reed espoused. Others would reject them due to ideological manipulation by editing techniques frequently used within mainstream American television designed to deny the validity of alternative ideas. Reed received a huge amount of hate mail and death threats after this program. As Reed’s lover Maren Zeidler remarks in Der Rote Elvis, “The points he made didn’t warrant those reactions.”2 For my part, I was thrilled seeing an American espousing socialist values similar to Jack London (1876-1916) who was as well known in his time for political activism as well as writing books such as The Call of the Wild (1903) which represent his only claim to fame for most Americans in his homeland. Johnny Rosenburg’s song “Nobody knows me in my own home town”, sung by Reed at the conclusion of Will Roberts’s documentary could also apply to London. Reed himself also starred in an East German version of one of Jack London’s novels Kit & Co in 1974.3 Both artists suffered from ideologically motivated attacks during their lifetimes and afterwards. While many academic neo-conservative Jack London scholars now seek to erase or belittle any socialist elements in his writings, journalists such as Reggie Nadelsen regard Reed’s sincere socialist commitments as little better than naïve stupidity especially in the light of the fall of the Berlin Wall that supposedly proved Capitalism was Right after all!4

According to information released under the Freedom of Information Act, Reed was under surveillance by the FBI as early as May 11th, 1962 for “anti-American activities in South America.” He began questioning his county’s role abroad at the time when his fame as a pop singer was at its highest in that region. As early as June 7, 1962, he inserted paid advertisements in Chilean newspapers urging them to write to President Kennedy to oppose atomic testing. His April 27th 1962 passport file from the United States Embassy in Chile also records that he congratulated a Russian football team in the previous October leading the Embassy to caution him over the propriety of his public statements. According to her 1986 Rolling Stock article, “Iron Curtain Cowboy” (accessible via www.DeanReed.de. ) Reed had befriended famous Soviet goal keeper Len Yanshin ten on tour in Chile with his soccer team. Yanshin invited Reed to a soccer game and Reed reciprocated by inviting the Soviet team to his concert. This led to interviews with the American Embassy and the Chilean secret police before a compromise was reached allowing Reed to attend the game and the radio network managing Reed’s concert tour to invite the Soviet team to attend. Unlike Wim Wenders’s Goalie, Reed did not fear any penalty kick even though it might involve that ruthless quarterback of American reaction himself!  The incident came to the attention of J. Edgar Hoover who learned in a July 31, 1962 memo that no information had been unearthed concerning Reed’s involvement “with the Communist Party or related groups” in the Los Angeles area. Another July 31, 1962 memo mentioned that Reed stated that he was an admirer of Gandhi, Bertrand Russell, and Linus Pauling when questioned by an American Embassy official in Santiago, Chile. Nobel Peace prize-winner Pauling (1901-1994) had been an anti-nuclear activist since the end of World War Two and denied a passport by the U.S. State Department in 1952 to prevent him speaking at a London scientific conference. Although it was restored in 1954, he was subjected to a campaign of vilification, the most appalling example being a Life magazine article denigrating his 1962 Nobel Prize as “A Weird Insult from Norway.” Reed also mentioned his opposition to war, military service, conscientious objector status since the age of eighteen, membership of an independent Unitarian faith in Hollywood, and his doubt concerning “the value of Christian faith and morals.” Reed affirmed that he was anti-communist but expressed his right as an unofficial American ambassador of peace to express opposition to nuclear testing on his South American tour. The file concludes by stating that neither the Los Angeles nor New York FBI offices found any incriminating information concerning Reed. All the above is consistent with the views expressed in all three documentaries that Reed became radicalized when he personally witnessed poverty in South America.

Another confidential memo sent to Hoover on August 30th, 1965 stated that Reed “had been extremely critical of U.S. actions in Viet Nam” while appearing on a Buenos Aires television program. It also mentioned his involvement in the recent Helsinki Peace and Disarmament Conference and his departure to Moscow to film an interview with the first female astronaut Valentina Tereshkova. Although never officially on the Security Index or Reserve Index, Reed’s critical comments on American foreign policy and his peace activism, led him to be categorized as “Dean Cyril Reed Security Matter – Communist”  in a November 28th, 1966 memo sent by J. Edgar Hoover. Following General Ongania’s 1966 military coup in Argentina, Reed was expelled from the country. Reed’s September 16th, 1967 letter to the International Herald Tribune criticizing staged elections in South Vietnam also came to Hoover’s attention. Reed had also written an open letter criticizing the statements of Aleksandr Solzyhenitsin in an Estonian publication during 1970, copies of which were translated and circulated to FBI offices in Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco, and Seattle. Reed criticized the ultra-conservative Russian writer’s one-sided attack on the Soviet Union and challenged him to consider looking at America as “the most violent society ever known to mankind” whose citizens suffer from “lack of medical attention and half of whose children die at birth because there is no money for doctors”, lack of freedom of speech, racism, and pursuing a reactionary world status quo. From material released so far, Reed was under FBI surveillance up to 1979.

Dean Reed: American Rebel promotes a progressive agenda of an artist who, then as now remained virtually unknown in his homeland but well known in the Soviet Bloc both as rock and roll singer and progressive artist. Filmed with sincerity by Reed’s friend Will Roberts, the documentary opens with a new credit poignantly missing from the first version: “In memory of Dean Reed (1938-1986)”. What was once a tribute to a living artist has now become a memorial but nevertheless an important one for depicting who Reed was and what he represented during the Cold War. It opens with a 1979 image of Reed signing autographs in Red Square followed by a montage of clips showing performances in Berlin, Chile and Nicaragua, and film and television appearances in (little-known to the West) East German productions such as Blood Brothers (1975), El Cantor (1977), Aus dem Leben des Taugenichts (1973), and Sing Cowboy Sing (1981). Reed both acted and directed in the second and fourth films. From his admittedly limited work in East German cinema, El Cantor (dedicated to Reed’s friend and fellow Chilean folk-singer Victor Jara murdered in the CIA sponsored coup against the democratically elected regime of Salvador Allende)) is his most accomplished work along with Blood Brothers. The latter film belongs to that East German DEFA studio genre of “Indian Westerns” that took issue with biased Hollywood Western representations of Native Americans and revealed the politically based policies of genocide used against them in the “winning of the west.”5

Roberts also interviews Reed’s Eastern fans who describe him variously as a “good singer”, “handsome” and a “good worker.” A clip follows from Sing Cowboy Sing (Reed’s attempt at his version of an East German singing cowboy comedy western) and a fan comments. “The film was funny.” Reed describes it during its premiere at the Moscow Peace Theatre as “The first comedy I tried to make in my life because I believe that to laugh is very important.” Der Rote Elvis later reveals that the film was slammed by the critics but applauded by a public whom Reed realized needed laughter in an environment that even he began to criticize. Roberts then interviews Reed’s father and mother (now divorced) about his upbringing as an all-American boy, his singing, and early evidence of altruism when he donated his fee to a Cancer Charity in Colorado. Although enrolling as a Meteorology major at the University of Colorado, Reed went West and eventually gained a recording contract with Capitol Records. Extracts from his records reveal him as a more talented version of the Frankie Avalon-Fabian variety rather than an Elvis performer. While in Hollywood, he enrolled at an acting class taught by Paton Price who became his mentor. Price was an acting coach for Warner Brothers and had spent two years in prison as a pacifist. Studying alongside the Every Brothers, Reed learned the value of sincerity in acting, something that Roberts illustrates with a clip from El Cantor showing Reed’s Victor Jara expressing hesitancy before taking a stand and gaining the respect of his fellow prisoners by finally doing so in the penultimate scenes. Interviewed by Roberts in his East Berlin home, Reed reflects on his Hollywood experiences as “a time of fear and exploitation” (one wonders whether the first term intimates his understanding of an industry still suffering from the blacklist?). In terms still relevant to today, he also describes Hollywood as a “prostitution camp where very few people can keep their integrity and those are the ones I respect.” One of these is Phil Everly. Despite being at opposite sides of the political spectrum to Reed, he affirmatively describes him as a “good singer, a good actor, and a well-rounded gymnast.” When he later performed with him in East Germany over twenty years later, Everly found that his old friend could still walk on his hands (a stunt he also performs on friend Johnny Rosenburg’s home video taken during his 1985 return to Colorado). In contrast to Reed’s various detractors, Everly comments that his friend could have succeeded anywhere in the world but “chose socialism” and that money may not be “much of a motivation to him.” Price also affirms that his former student could have been as famous in America as in the Soviet Bloc “had he remained. However, Reed was no Soviet stooge. Although he affirms East Germany in a 1981 television interview, he also mentions that “This society has also made its mistakes.”

American Rebel depicts the beginning of Reed’s radicalism during his South American tour following the unexpected success of a single Our Summer Romance which failed to make an impression in his homeland. There he saw the extremes between rich and poor - “I did not realize there was so much poverty in the world” -  leading to his beginning to work for free for unions and his growing activism also noted by the FBI. Although Reed’s washing his country’s flag outside the U.S. Embassy in Chile as atonement for its murder of innocent Vietnamese and South Americans supposedly led to Allende’s small majority in the imminent election, the artist dismisses his significance with great humility. “Allende won because he had the right policies and wanted to help his people.” The documentary continues to chronicle Reed’s growing popularity in both South America and the Eastern Bloc, his film roles in Italian Westerns such as Adios Sabata and I Nipoti di Zorro (1969) co-starring comedians Franco Franchi and Ciccio Ingrassia, and Blood Brothers, “the most commercial film of 1975”  in East Germany. Reed went to the Eastern Bloc as an officially approved American singer of rock and roll performing cover versions of Beatles, Elvis, and Chubby Checker songs while at the same time obviously wanting to extend his talents. As he tells Roberts, film represents the ideal medium for him to reach audiences around the world many of whom are illiterate. In 1974, he appears as Jack London’s Smoke Bellew in Kit & Co, where he meets for the first time his future  third wife Renate Blume, an award winning East German actress. Yet despite his success in the East, he recognizes a “conspiracy of silence” operating against him in America, one affirmed by his ailing mentor Paton Price interviewed in a Los Angeles hospital during 1981.

One of the most affirmative scenes in the film is Reed’s return to Pinochet’s Chile in 1983 where he performs an illegal benefit concert for striking miners by singing “Venceremos”, a song unheard since Allende’s day. He also performs the next day at the University of Chile before being deported. By placing his life in danger with Pinochet’s thugs waiting outside, Reed evokes the spirit of his murdered friend Victor Jara. Roberts earlier inserted a clip from El Cantor showing Reed’s Jara performing while Allende and his Cabinet appear on the same platform. Reed speaks of himself as a “revolutionary artist” and affirms his willingness to risk his own life “like those I inspire with my music and poetry.” The clip showing him in Lebanon during 1977 performing “Ghost Riders in the Sky” before Yasser Arafat evoked storms of protest when later shown in the “60 Minutes” segment. But it was designed as an act of solidarity against the Zionist aim of “genocide against the Palestinian people” in Lebanon facing an invasion which did actually happen. In Der Rote Elvis Reed explains this act. He did not want to become a tourist superstar but to practice what he believed in, especially during a time when he saw that pacifism was not as effective as he previously believed. Interviewed alongside Will Roberts, Jennifer Dorn explains why Reed turned from pacifism to more direct forms of activism. The murders of Allende, Jara, and many of his Chilean friends in the 1973 American-inspired coup that occurred when he was in East Berlin made a deep impression on him. As Reed told her during his 1985 interview, “Until then I’d been a pacifist but when people you love are killed, it changes you.”

American Rebel allows Dean Reed the opportunity to express his beliefs in a manner his homeland continually attempted to distort, if not silence. He affirms that American culture is no threat to Latin America but also sees the other side of its use as a device of cultural imperialism. “All people should have the right to see the culture of other foreign nationalities and defend their own culture as well. “ (italics mine) He speaks as an American citizen amazed at his country’s ignorance of their own revolution and recognizing the need for a radical change, a qualitative change, needed for a capitalist system that “can not be made into a just system for all by reform.”  At the same time, he criticizes the “bureaucratic censorship” existing in East Germany and his attempts of “trying to make socialism a better socialism.”

Will Roberts generously sent me a VHS copy of his documentary some twenty years ago. He has now added new captions to the DVD reissue. Re-viewing American Rebel with its poignant added epilogue concerning Reed’s mysterious death in 1986 – “As his friend I do not believe his death was accidental nor do I believe he committed suicide – it is clear that the subject contained the potential of being “a very dangerous citizen” for both East and West. Used originally by right-wing Illinois congressman Harold Velde against Abraham Polonsky in his appearance before the House Committee on Un-American Activities in 1951, it is equally applicable to Dean Reed. The value of Will Roberts’s documentary made in 1985 and now available again on DVD twenty years later is that it implicitly reveals certain contradictions that would emerge in later works that would either follow negative or more critical directions. American Rebel is a tribute to a friend by a friend but its real value resides in the fact that it raises several issues still evoking debate today. It is much more than a museum piece limited by the period of its first appearance but is actually a very relevant work still important towards understanding who Dean Reed was and what he represented in the era before the collapse of the Berlin Wall.

Comrade Rockstar, narrated by biographer Reggie Nadelsen, has a different agenda. Beginning with clips of Reed performing, the official description of his death, and tributes by Phil Everly and one of Reed’s Eastern fans, it moves towards an ideologically motivated conclusion where Reed’s guitar is moved from its Moscow rock museum showcase and consigned to the “dustbin of history” in a basement. For Nadelesen, Reed is a deluded and naïve “yesterday’s man” now forgotten after the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the fall of the Evil Empire. Although less condescending and negative than her nasty-minded Pauline Kael inspired biography, this documentary is still a sarcastic put-down of a once well-known figure consigning his sincere socialist beliefs to the same “dustbin of history” that contemporary right-wing ideology hopes will seal the fate of an opposing alternative view of history. Despite this, it is amazing how much of Dean Reed’s significance remains in this version. Phil Everly does not allow his politics to tar the memory of a friend he still regards as talented and belongs to those who believe that Reed could never have committed suicide. Nadelsen begins her narration like a cheap version of an espionage thriller. “Was he our spy or theirs? Was he the Third Man?” Predictably, the Harry Lime theme follows. Then a montage of images features contradictory views of Dean’s end whether murder (Ruth Anna Brown), suicide (Victor Grossman), rejection of suicide (Phil Everly), denial of KGB involvement (Gyorgy Arbatov), and murder (Johnny Rosenburg). Nadelsen supplements this documentary with selections from Will Roberts’s earlier work, new material, and a deliberately selected clip from Adios Sabata where Reed’s Ballantine character is referred to in negative terms.

Shot seven years after American Rebel, this work contains critical views of Reed and his work from a post-Wall perspective. Nadelsen describes Reed as a “political junkie for peace and fame.” In terms evoking a bad version of The Manchurian Candidate, Reed’s former Czech mistress Countess Nyta Doval believes that the Russians may have brainwashed him while he was in the Soviet Union.  Russian music critic Artemy Troitsky condemns Reed as a traitor to rock and roll due to his support of the Eastern system. Comrade Rockstar also significantly contains a shot of plaques of heroes of the revolution outside the Kremlin Wall passing Molotov and ending with Stalin rather than showing those ones of Americans who identified with the Soviet cause such as Big Bill Haywood and John Reed. The choice of a historical figure the ultra-right still uses to tarnish communism and socialism (as well as his complicit stooge Molotov) needs little comment. A young fan expresses her eventual disillusionment with Reed as a “fake rock and roll teenager” now “lonely and forgotten” in one of his last performances after his younger audience has now grown up and moved on to local bands. Cold War American East German exile Victor Grossman speaks of “people beginning to dislike him” because of his association with the system. One value of this documentary is its use of extracts from the video footage shot by Reed’s Colorado friend Johnny Rosenburg when Reed briefly returned home. This time Reed performs to a small basement of people rather than the huge audiences he entertained in the East and South America. Comrade Rockstar includes an extract from the infamous 60 Minutes interview revealing Reed hopelessly out of touch with a Reaganite America he hoped to return to.6  By the time Rosenburg records a song to send to his friend criticizing his beliefs, it is too late. The tape arrives after Reed’s death. The “times were a changing” for Reed in more than one way and this documentary emphasizes this for its own ideological agenda. It features the alleged suicide letter that Reed supposedly wrote, hidden in Erich Honneker’s safe over the past four years, written on the back of fourteen pages of a screenplay for a film Reed was to appear in. Grossman believes that this suicide was a blessing in disguise. “By departing this world, he saved himself a lot of heartbreak in what was to follow.” A young Soviet fan describes him as a hero “who must commit suicide.” Despite Nadelsen’s wish to reject Reed and the values he stood for, certain features in this documentary undermine her ideological ambitions making it have a less definitive closure than the one she desires.

By the time Der Rote Elvis appears several books based on new information have now appeared about Dean Reed. New material has also emerged concerning his problematic marriages, tendencies towards depression, and the dark side beneath his smiling, wholesome persona. Indeed, Der Rote Elvis features what must be the only photograph of Reed scowling with girlfriend Maren Zeidler. However, far from lending ammunition to his detractors, this new information presents him more as a complex, multi-faceted human being challenging admirers and critics to try to understand him even better. Due to changes written by history and new perceptions Der Rote Elvis can not follow the path taken by Will Roberts in presenting an affirmative view of the man. But, at the same time, it does not fall into the other trap of disrespectful depiction (followed by Nadelsen and right-wing Colorado radio talk host Peter Boyles interviewed in Der Rote Elvis). Instead, it offers a more critical unbiased type of investigation leading viewers to consider the material and make their own evaluations without any form of directorial influence. Unlike Roberts and Nadelsen, Leopold Gruen remains in the background. His work aims to examine the ambivalence surrounding Reed’s life and the different cultural and historical curves operating at the time and beyond.7 In many ways, Der Rote Elvis operates in a manner resembling the dialogical discourse associated with the Russian critic Mikhail Bakhtin with a more “centrifugal” emphasis rather than employing the more “centripetal” axioms of the previous documentaries. It presents different perspectives and opposing voices within its structure leaving viewers to consider the implications of the material presented before them.

Der Rote Elvis begins with stock footage of Reed signing autographs and entertaining his audiences. A comment follows. “In Reed, East Germany found its poster boy who could say he was critical of American society.” Armin Mueller-Stahl, an actor who had worked with Reed on Kit & Co before leaving East Germany to appear in Fassbinder’s Lola (1981) following his blacklisting in 1976 after criticizing GDR policies, speaks sympathetically (as he often does throughout this documentary) of Reed. “What was he doing here? He could have been a star in America?” The actor also describes Reed as resembling “a toy car moving in all directions” before finally having to “stop at the edge of the table.” “What audience is he going to reach?” The GDR news report of Reed’s death follows mentioning his three children Ramona, Natasha, and Alexander present at the funeral.8 A series of different perspectives and voices follows. A Santiago music producer present at one of Reed’s live concerts regards him as an Elvis imitator and speaks of his voice being “not good and out of tune that day. But nobody noticed.”9 Conscious of Reed’s limitations as an actor, Mueller-Stahl also recognizes that he “could have been a big star in America” paralleling the type of performances of Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt. They are not “great actors” but do play “leading roles.” One may also say that despite the few challenging roles Reed played in his lifetime, his Blood Brother and El Cantor roles far exceed anything that Elvis and Fabian did in their acting careers. Will Roberts and Isabel Allende follow, the former affirming that despite Dean’s “Cinderella story in Chile”, he wanted to “use his fame to make the world a better place for people” while the latter comments on how unusual it was for an American to lend support to her deceased father’s cause at a time when “we lived in a different world.” The next scene takes place in Reed’s Colorado graveyard showing Russian émigré Lana Davis who moved there to be near a man she never even met. Critical of lies disseminated by the former Soviet regime, she speaks in terms resembling religious devotion of a “very sincere person” who “didn’t do it for money” but because he believed in “the idea.” Even today, his memory inspires her friends in Russia whom she speaks to on her cell phone.

By contrast, Gruen features right-wing Colorado radio talk show host Peter Boyles who interviewed Reed in 1985 and is seen using the same type of browbeating “talk show” tactics against a listener who phones in manipulating him to condemn Reed as a “defector.” Will Roberts contradicts Boyles by describing his deceased friend as “an American revolutionary who could have made money if he kept his mouth shut.” Isabel Allende also affirms this revolutionary commitment .Reed’s actor friend Celino Bliesweiss presents a more contradictory image of someone who did not want to be identified as a rock singer knowing that his career in that field would soon end but someone who wished to die as either a hero or martyr. During the next interview segment illustrated by the clip from Blood Brothers showing Reed’s cavalry officer destroying the staff of an American flag after witnessing the massacre of an Indian tribe in a recreation of the infamous Sand Creek massacre, Mueller-Stahl affirms another type of contradiction. Reed was aware that his society denied the values of its own fine Constitution and wished to speak out against injustice “but was more likely to be heard in smaller countries than the USA.” Another interview with last East German leader Egon Krenze adds to the contradictory image of Reed when he mentions the singer’s willingness to be involved in propaganda activities in a regime that also had its own form of oppression.

Der Rote Elvis also interviews Reed’s second wife Wiebke who delivers both positive and negative reminiscences. Attracted to him while still married in a sequence using imagery supplied by a romantic scene from Reed’s first East German film Aus dem Leben eines Taugenights (in which he plays an eighteenth century strolling player), she describes him as “the perfect example of a golden boy.” This description ironically evokes the title of Clifford Odets’s 1937 play dealing with the tragic death of another hero contaminated by the system. Although Reed turned her into “quite a radical” she also documents his personal flaws such as leaving her alone in an empty house, forcing her to abort a child before agreeing to marriage, and throwing both her and her daughter out of their home following their marital breakdown. “He made me feel quite small.” Bleisweiss comments on Reed’s brutal manner towards certain women. However, one of Reed’s many girlfriends, Maren Zeidler accepted the type of non-committed relationship he seemed to be most happy with. These different perspectives contradict that well-known axiom of “the political is personal” in terms of Reed’s private life. However, Reed was committed to the cause of revolution. He took up arms when visiting Arafat in Lebanon so that he would not appear as another tourist celebrity affirming a cause but doing nothing practical to aid it. Both Will Roberts and Colorado journalist Jennifer Dorn affirm Reed’s commitment in this respect.

However, Der Rote Elvis also shows the contradictory aspects of Reed’s commitment more explicitly than American Rebel did. While he certainly risked his life playing a benefit concert for striking miners in Pinochet’s Chile in 1983 – an act which earned respect from these working class heroes – Reed also “played his assigned role perfectly” in East Germany, a role that many would question and reject when he began to lose his popularity with a younger audience who had now grown up and flocked to rock concerts by Western artists such as Joe Cocker now allowed to tour in a frontier once reserved exclusively for Reed.. However, Mueller-Stahl believed that Reed actually wanted to attempt “building bridges” rather than cause rifts. But “I sensed that he was uneasily reconciled” and that a certain “ambivalence existed beneath the surface.” Gruen documents this ambivalence on both personal and political levels making any definitive interpretation of Reed problematic. Maren Zeidler questioned his third marriage to Renata Blume because “you confuse love with infatuation” and Mueller Stahl speaks sympathetically about Reed being in two minds about signing a petition concerning East Germany refusing to allow one of its radical artists to return home. Although an interview with Renata was impossible due to her involvement in the Tom Hanks project, Gruen uses former interview material and home movies of the couple together with his adopted son Alexander as well as revealing footage showing Deed isolated and unhappy outside their Schmoeckwitz residence outside East Berlin. In contrast to the idyllic relationship depicted in American Rebel, viewers now discover that Reed did not want another child (despite Renata’s wish for a baby) and agreed to adopt her child by another relationship if she gave up this desire. As Maren Zeidler points out, “The relationship never recovered after that.”

Conscious of the passing of time, feeling homesick for an America that bore little relationship to what he remembered, and finding that Renata was reluctant to move there since she knew little English and had a career in her homeland, Reed finds himself more and more at odds with the system he once embraced. A 1984 East German TV interview sees Reed rejecting his stereotyping as a “singer of the people” followed by a clip from Sing Cowboy Sing in which he attempted to entertain, rather than educate people, as if following the lesson of Preston Sturges’s Sullivan’s Travels (1941). However, despite its popular success, Sing Cowboy Sing was a critical failure in East Germany and it was left to the dubious Egon Krenze to protect Reed from hostile reaction. Krenze mentions that by then Reed “sensed that his glory days were behind him.” A November 17, 1982 speeding report in the Stasi files documents Reed’s insulting remarks to a policeman comparing his newfound homeland to a “Fascist State” that he and the entire GDR population were fed up with “up to here.” The report concludes by mentioning that Reed made a gesture that is never described but one which we can obviously imagine! Bleisweiss mentions Reed’s troubled response to a letter from the mother of an East German youth imprisoned for wishing to leave the GDR and asking for his help believing that he would sympathize since he had played a freedom-loving strolling player in Taugenichts.

After his abortive attempt to return home following the 60 Minutes interview, Reed attempted to set up his final film project dealing with the 1973 Wounded Knee incident which would feature both Native American activists Russell Means and Clyde Delacourte and Central Asians from Tashkent playing Indian roles. Perhaps Reed now felt that he had compromised in making Sing Cowboy Sing that was far beneath the level of his previous films Blood Brothers and El Cantor? Reed would both act and direct. In his 1986 Rolling Stock interview Reed mentioned that the project would be filmed in the Crimea and would focus upon how three people – a photographer, a journalist, and a hippie – lived through the 71 day siege. Producer Gunther Reise speaks about the progress of a project hindered by Soviet bureaucracy and suffering from contradictions involving Reed’s former star image and the different type of non-heroic role the project needed to succeed, a contradiction illustrated by different versions of the screenplay Reed worked on. Der Rote Elvis moves to its tragic conclusion. Using extracts from Renata’s testimony to Stasi agents some weeks following the discovery of his body in a nearby lake, the actress recalls the troubling events of June 11th 1986 and the following night when he left her after an argument. The closing pre-credits image slowly zooms out from a photo of Reed’s body laid out on the ground. It is accompanied by the poignant music of Monomango, a group Gruen uses throughout the film to give modern interpretations to Reed’s music as well as acoustically underscore key moments in the film. Credits roll against a black background. But the final image is from another 8mm home movie of Dean Reed climbing a hill posthumously engaging in another of those challenges that characterized his life. As his face moves into close-up, the image fades into white. Maybe this deceased star still challenges future directors and viewers to engage in their own type of search for Dean Reed?  This search may not be as conclusive in the manner of previous depictions but important towards understanding his historical, contemporary, and future significance. 

Der Rote Elvis represents a particular twenty-first century view of Reed. Directed by a former East German who did not particularly care for the artist during his lifetime, finding his films bad and music mediocre, he became attracted to the contradictions inherent within this figure after reading a book written by his friend Stefan Ernsting in 2001.10 Since then several books have appeared in German about Reed. Appearing nearly twenty years after the collapse of the Berlin Wall at a time when Reed was mostly forgotten, Der Rote Elvis presents a deliberate heterogeneous depiction of an artist whose life ended in tragedy. Towards the end of his life, he sensed the development of  social and historical contradictions that would finally erupt in the end of a system he had both embraced and began expressing doubts over. Rather than being the accessible figure he is in the previous documentaries, whether positive or negative, the Dean Reed of Der Rote Elvis resembles a split-subject in the Lacanian sense of the term riddled by contradictions and difficult to subject to one particular interpretation. Leopold Gruen wishes to raise contradictions in the minds of audiences who may or may not have known the artist, forcing them to examine the evidence and make their own interpretations. Der Rote Elvis represents a particular way of searching for Dean Reed. It differs from previous treatments by suggesting that any definitive closure is impossible. The search will obviously continue.11

I wish to thank Andrea Witte and her colleagues on www.DeanReed.de for the  valuable help she has offered in the past year, Nina Berfelde of Totho Film for sending me a screensaver DVD of Der Rote Elvis, as well as Jennifer Dorn and Leopold Gruen for responding to my questions by email.12

Notes

1. When sheltering from a Mid-West rainstorm in a student bar during August 1984, I overheard an inebriated young customer remark, “I’ll die for Ronald Reagan.” This is a true story! [return to article]

2. She also adds that “America is very patriotic, very nationalistic” as if aware of her own country’s past history in the 1933-1945 era! [return to article]

3. See Tony Williams, “Dead Reed as Jack London.” The Jack London Newsletter 21.1-3 (1988): 145-147. Also available with German translation in www.DeanReed.de [return to article]

4. For evidence of this first tendency believing London finally rejected socialism to become a born-again Jungian see Tony Williams, “Jack London and Carl G. Jung: An Alternative Reading,” The Jack London Journal  3 (1996): 129-145. [return to article]

5. Co-scripted by Reed, Blood Brothers also starred that icon of East German Westerns Gojko Mitic, well-known for his portrayal of heroic Native Americans in this genre in films such as The Sons of the Great Bear (1965), Chingachgook: The Great Snake (1967), and Apaches (1973). The second is a retelling of J. Fennimore Cooper’s final tale in the Leatherstocking series, “The Deerslayer” with the emphasis now on Natty Bumpo’s companion facing genocidal strategies from the first wave of European invaders. These three films are now available in sub-titled versions in the 2006 DVD box set Westerns with A Twist!  They are highly recommended viewing complementing with the political western sub-genre of the Italian Western and contrasting with Karl May West German adaptations made during the 1960s and 1970s. Kevin Costner’s Dances with Wolves (1990) bears more than one element of similarity to Blood Brothers though lacking its political radicalism as well as the complexity seen in Samuel Fuller’s Run of the Arrow (1957). [return to article]

6. As one commentator in the July 11 2006, BBC 2 Radio program “Dean Reed: Death of a Comrade” notes, Reed had a way of “shooting himself in the foot” when dealing with hostile interviewers. Benefiting from his positive treatment by the Eastern media, he was obviously unable to deal with a different type of Western treatment. Had he lived how could he have dealt with contemporary figures such as Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, and Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News network? In her “Iron Curtain Cowboy” article in Rolling Stock 11, 1986, Jennifer Dorn mentions that an hour before Reed’s appearance on his show, Boyles had announced his guest as an American deserter, a defector, and a communist. This was unknown to Reed. To Leopold Gruen’s credit, he includes a scene in Der Rote Elvis showing Boyles browbeat one of his listeners who phones in to discuss Reed eventually bullying him verbally into delivering the required response. [return to article]

7. Leopold Gruen, March 13, 2008, email. [return to article]

8. Ramona was Reed’s daughter by his first wife Patricia who was unavailable for interview while Renata Blume had already become involved with Tom Hanks’s planned biopic based on Reggie Nadelsen’s biography. Alexander was Renata’s son whom Reed adopted following their marriage. [return to article]

9. From my perspective (evoking the type of response that Leopold Gruen would expect from viewers of his work), I would counter the criticism by saying that every artist has a bad “day”. Furthermore, I remember Suggs, lead vocalist of the 80s pop group Madness (still performing today,) giving a live performance on British television during that period warning his audience that they would find it very different from the recording studio. Elvis did influence a lot of British rock stars in their early days such as Cliff Richard and Marty Wilde but to say that Elvis “would have sued Dean Reed” had he been present during the Santiago gig is absurd. Reed’s vocal high and low tones represents a different type of Elvis influence (who also borrowed many of his early techniques from black vocalists) and certainly shows more development than his “Twirly Twirly” performance in the 1959 episode of Batchelor Father featured in the earlier Reed documentaries. Unlike Del Shannon of “Runaway” fame who eventually committed suicide after increasing years made his teenage idol persona impossible, Dean Reed was constantly developing his acting and singing abilities. [return to article]

10. Leopold Gruen, March 13, 2008 email. [return to article]

11. Hopefully, further treatments of Reed’s life will continue via documentary examinations and not in the manner of the proposed Tom Hanks biopic based on Reggie Nadelsen’s biography. [return to article]

12. According to Reed’s mother Ruth Anna Brown, the Wounded Knee project was to have been shot near Yalta. “When I was at his house in June I found several unopened letters from Hollywood stars telling Dean that they would not be playing a part in 'Bloody Heart’ because they were afraid of the fallout.” See “Dean Reed: 1938-1986: The Mysterious Death of the Iron Curtain Cowboy”, Rolling Stock 12, 1985/ http://www.deanreed.de/presse/rs1986122.html. In a March 13, 2008 email, Andrea Witte informed me that Hanks optioned the project because “he liked the title” and Nadelsen may be working on the screenplay. So far nothing further has been heard of this project. One can only view with apprehension, a film featuring the star of Forrest Gump, Saving Private Ryan, and Charlie Wilson’s War (2007) that will deliver an obviously ideologically motivated treatment” far inferior to those of  Will Roberts and Leopold Gruen. Hopefully, Der Rote Elvis should soon gain the international release it really deserves. Fortunately, according to recent information sent to me in an April 12, 2008 email by Johnny Rosenburg, Hanks appears to have lost interest in this project. [return to article]

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