The question is nearly as old as humanity itself. Which is the more effective tool to end a war: words or weapons? Here, in Washington, DC, we often enjoy playing up both as the choice armaments of the United States of America for confronting and ending conflict. World War II was ended by the overwhelming force of our weapon systems—specifically the atomic bomb—and US politicians like Henry Kissinger have ended conflicts in countries around the globe with the simple, surgical and succinct use of words in diplomacy. But what ended the Cold War, the longest conflict in US history? Certainly not weapons, as the US and USSR never engaged in ground wars. Words? Possibly, especially seeing how Gorbachev and Reagan’s talks in the 80s did much to thaw the icy tension. Free to Rock, a cold war-era documentary that had its Washington premiere in Georgetown University’s Gaston Hall, argues that the tool, the power, that ended the Cold War and the USSR was not a weapon or diplomatic exchanges of words — it was rock and roll.
Free to Rock, a PBS-style, hour long documentary directed by four-time Emmy winner Jim Brown, tells the history and influence of rock roll, as experienced by the people of the Soviet Union and the Eastern bloc. The film engages in examining how Anglo-American rock ‘n’ roll and rock artists touched the hearts and minds of youth in communist countries during the Cold War. More importantly, the film sheds light on the often unknown—to Western audiences—stories, musical accomplishments and activism of Soviet and Eastern European born-and-bred rock musicians. Rock music may have been, as one musician put it “A window into American life and freedom,” but its true potency was only unlocked when the youth took up their own instruments and made their own music. And, in doing so, they made statements against communist regimes stronger than any Eastern bloc politician.
From the first, stolen moments listening to Elvis Presley on Radio Free Europe to the Soviet Peace and Music Festival in 1989 and the Tushino Airfield Monsters of Rock Festival in 1991, Brown traces the parallel narratives of the proliferation of American rock into the Eastern Bloc and Iron Curtain musicians fighting their own war with their own music. And, occasionally, how the Soviet government tried to fight back. One of the funniest, most revelatory, segments in the documentary comes when Iron Curtain musicians discuss “Vocal Instrumental Ensembles,” Kremlin created groups that used electronic instruments—which were generally forbidden—and played in a “rock” style. They just sang songs about the glories of socialism, labor and the communist party. Stas Namin, one of the film and Soviet rock music’s central figures summarized them in the post-screening panel, “They weren’t bad, it was just bullshit.”
The history is important, examining how the Iron Curtain would evolve and adapt their music with the influx of rock music within the changing political climate. But the real ground work, the real heavy lifting, that the film does is sharing the stories of the rebels inspired by rock ‘n’ roll, and how simple yet monumental this rebellion was. Building your own electric guitar, making bootleg rock records out of discarded plastic, forming underground music communes, being beaten, bloodied and killed because you refuse to stop listening and playing rock and roll; this is what musicians were willing to do to have some modicum of personal expression. And the results still reverberate: Latvian rock musician Pete Anderson is celebrated as a folk hero in his country, and Namin is one of the most central figures of Russian music today.
For those still in disbelief that rock and roll had this much power, that music period had this much power, Free to Rock cinches the message with images and statements from the collapse of the Eastern bloc. After the Czech Republic’s first free elections, newly elected President Vaclav Havel invited the Rolling Stones to perform in the country; Roger Waters performing The Wall at the ruins of the Berlin Wall; the Soviet Peace and Music Festival, organized by Namin, which allowed Western and Eastern musicians to share a stage, ideologies and music for a day. This is how the war was truly won. The film, perhaps unorthodoxly, begins and ends with clips from a concert given in Moscow in 2012 by Flowers (Namin’s rock group that sold 12 million records in the USSR) and other Soviet and Russian musicians protesting the incarceration of Pussy Riot and other Russian activists. The musicians were freed shortly after the concert; with Free to Rock suggesting that the power of rock music in Vladmir Putin’s Russia still holds enormous sway.
It is appropriate that the documentary would tie the message of the film’s main narrative body—seeing the power of rock music and ideology in the Cold War—to a modern time. Even more appropriate is the timing of this film’s arrival in Washington, DC. After the horrific attacks in Paris and Beirut over the weekend, Free to Rock’smessage regarding the power of ideological battles winning war hits close to home. Daesh (the proper, Arabic name for “ISIS”) wages conquest with tanks, guns and swords, yes, but more often sees itself in a war of culture and ideology with the West. This echoes the same kind of climate the West faced when combatting communism and the Soviet Union for the latter half of the 20th century. Free to Rock, beyond telling the unheard story of the upheaval and real power of Soviet rock music, carries larger implications for today. Perhaps presidential candidates on both sides of the aisle could learn a thing or two from Free to Rock about how culture, ideology, and music are some of the most powerful weapons that one can wield against an ideologically-driven and committed force like Daesh.
During the film’s introduction, and plenty of discussion around it, critics, academics, politicians, and filmmakers alike have lauded the film for its portrayal of the enormous potential force of “soft power” diplomacy like Western rock music. But, as former Hungarian ambassador Andras Simonyi expressed at the film’s panel, “Rock and roll is not soft; it is as hard as nuclear weapons in bringing down despotic systems.” Perhaps, as Free to Rock and its participants would tell us, we should not be raining bombs on the enemies of freedom; we should be raining rock and roll.
For more information on the film, for future events and screenings, and more, visit www.freetorockmovie.com