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Music to Crush Communism By

A clutch of films looks at music’s role in gnawing away at the foundations of the Soviet Union. From MusicFilmWeb.

by Andy Markowitz 26 August 2011

Throughout this month, Transitions will present a series of articles marking the anniversary of the fall of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia. 


In the 20 years since the failed coup of 19 August 1991, there's been much discussion and debate about what chiefly brought about the swift collapse of the Soviet superpower – Mikhail Gorbachev's economic and political reforms; Ronald Reagan's Star Wars buildup and Evil Empire rhetoric; the morale- and money-sap of an unwinnable war in Afghanistan. But much has also been made of the impact of the West's cultural “soft power,” especially the authority-defying allure of rock 'n' roll, offering Soviet youth a loud and liberating antidote to their rigid societies.


In recent years films proffering music as a key factor – even the factor – in bringing down the Berlin Wall and the Soviet bear have become festival staples, and the drumbeat shows no sign of abating. Two more documentaries on the subject are in the works (Jim Brown's Rockin' the Kremlin, noted below, and East Block Rock from Bulgarian emigre and film-festival honcho Ilko Davidov), as is a book on popular music in the Soviet Union by Leslie Woodhead – whose film on the Beatles' influence back in the USSR leads off our list of Cold War (mostly) rock documentaries.


In How the Beatles Rocked the Kremlin (2009), esteemed documentarian Woodhead, who shot the first footage of the Fab Four rocking the Cavern Club, chronicles the illicit Beatlemania of 1960s Soviet youth and makes the case (via a cast of aging superfans, including a top deputy to Vladimir Putin) that John, Paul, George, and Ringo, offering the masses an irresistible alternative to stodgy Kremlin orthodoxy, played a key role in undermining Communist rule. Woodhead is at work on a book of the same name, covering the Soviet Union's tangled twist with Western popular music from the 1920s until its collapse.


"If you look at all the factors that led to the ultimate loss of belief in the system, which was its downfall – it was held together by fear and by belief – and the Beatles played a role in, first of all, overcoming the fear and in showing that the belief was actually stupid," renowned Russian broadcaster and one-time Soviet spokesman Vadimir Pozner tells Woodhead.


Multiple Emmy winner Brown, whose films have focused on the history of American folk music and its icons like Pete Seeger, explores the role of rock in sapping the foundations of totalitarianism in the upcoming Rockin' the Kremlin. He finds seismic impact in events like the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band's 1977 Soviet tour. The project was bolstered earlier this month by a $550,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities.


In Beats of Freedom (2010), directors Leszek Gnoinski and Wojciech Slota have British rock journalist (and son of Polish immigrants) Chris Salewicz lead a journey through Polish rock from the 1960s through the 1980s and its tandem development with the dissident Solidarity movement.


Two years earlier, directors Jeremy Deller and Nicholas Abrahams filmed a globe-trotting exploration of Depeche Mode love that isn't per se about how those mopey British electro rockers helped end the Cold War (it also looks at fan communities in the United States, Britain, and, touchingly, Iran). But much of The Posters Came From the Walls (2008) is given over to “Depechists” in Romania, the former East Germany, and especially Russia, where bootleg cassettes provided a musical backdrop to glasnost, and lead singer Dave Gahan's birthday is treated as a virtual national holiday.


Finally, in a rarity among rock-obsessed Eastern bloc music documentaries, James Tusty and Maureen Castle Tusty’s The Singing Revolution (2006) observes how one tiny Soviet republic's own musical traditions fueled its drive to freedom. In late-1980s Estonia, a generations-old national choir festival evolved into revolutionary gatherings where hundreds of thousands of people defied Soviet authority and sang banned patriotic songs. The movie is airing on U.S. public television stations through mid-September; check the schedule here.


Andy Markowitz is editorial director of MusicFilmWeb, where a version of this article originally appeared.

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