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  •  REVIEW: THE PLASTIC PEOPLE OF THE UNIVERSE

      The Plastic People of the Universe
    One word: Plastics

    The documentary "The Plastic People of the Universe" tells the history of the heroic Czech rock band of the same name, which played a pivotal role in Czechoslovakia's political dissident movement.

    By JOSHUA TANZER
    Offoffoff.com


    The rock band that really changed history was not the Beatles or Bob Dylan or the Rolling Stones — it was the little-known Plastic People of the Universe, the subject of a new documentary that recounts the Czech group's journey from primitive psychedelic band to jailed dissidents to national heroes.

    THE PLASTIC PEOPLE OF THE UNIVERSE
    Written and directed by: Jana Chytlova.
    Featuring: The Plastic People of the Universe (Milan Hlavsa, Josef Janicek, Vratislav Brabenec, Jiri Krabes), Lou Reed, Gary Lucas, Egon Bondy, Vaclav Havel..
    In Czech with English subtitles.
      
    Early in the film, Lou Reed tells why he marvels at the Plastic People, who based their sound partly on the Velvet Underground: "Over here [in the U.S.] people go to jail, but not for lyrics. To go to jail for lyrics in music — that's fantastic!"

    While it's true that the Plastic People were a singularly courageous band, that's kind of a comfortable American view — the band members didn't feel fantastic when they were behind bars. They hardly thought of themselves as radicals before the state, fearing that rock and roll concerts were being organized by some secret longhair anti-communist underground, took aim at them. After an apparently comical show trial for obscenity, the band members were jailed, and one of the most moving parts of this documentary shows the band members returning to their now-empty cells and describing the psychological toll they underwent.

      
      The picture of clandestine intellectual ferment, with painters, musicians, writers and scholars all influencing one another, gives a sense of how the dissident movement developed and why the arts were considered so important.
      
    One band member remembers how his mother naively wrote to President Gustav Husak about her son's bizarre fate. "She didn't see the political context of it. She was from a musical family and she used to sing, and now we were in jail because of it."

    Now-President Vaclav Havel appears in the film to discuss the Plastic People's importance to the dissident movement. It was the band's arrest, he says, that inspired the organization of Charter 77, a group of writers and artists who formed in 1977 to voice their challenge the Czech state. Less well known, and one of the most interesting revelations in the film, is how the dissident community came together after 1977.

    Havel himself shows off the country house where he was exiled, and tells how artists and intellectuals of all kinds came together there and elsewhere in secret weekend gatherings that included milestone Plastic People concerts. The picture of clandestine intellectual ferment, with painters, musicians, writers and scholars all influencing one another, gives a sense of how the dissident movement developed and why the arts were considered so important both to the intellectuals and to the repressive state.

    Two things that don't fully emerge from the documentary are the band's music and the philosophy that motivated this amazing Czech movement. The music is heard mostly in snippets — it's built on heavy, repetitive rock riffs with quirky instrumentation that includes saxophone and fiddle. (There is one full song from the band's 1997 reunion tour at New York's Irving Plaza.)

    As for philosophy, it is interesting to relate the band's history to their friend Havel's own writings about the "Power of the Powerless." Havel writes that communist repression will begin to erode if people "live in truth," remaining true to themselves even if they don't openly defy the state. This is what we see in the Plastic People band — the quietly brave determination to continue making their own music no matter what the state demands.

    It would have been worthwhile to add some narration to this film in order to drive home the connection between the Plastic People and the political change that they inspired over 20 years. You may have to fill yourself in on a little Czech history to fully understand this story, but the film is an excellent chance to learn more about one of rock and roll's most significant bands and the struggle for freedom in the communist world.

    JANUARY 24, 2002
    OFFOFFOFF.COM • THE GUIDE TO ALTERNATIVE NEW YORK


    Reader comments on The Plastic People of the Universe:

  • Plastic People review   from Elana, Feb 1, 2002
  • Re: Plastic People review   from husak prusak, Sep 27, 2007
  • Plastic people Movie   from Barry, Feb 25, 2002
  • Re: Plastic people Movie   from Les Brinkley, Aug 9, 2003
  • Re: Plastic people Movie   from Mike Dimitrov, Oct 1, 2003
  • Re: Plastic people Movie   from Ivana, Jan 11, 2009
  • The history of the Plastics is not over!   from Lucian, Feb 26, 2003
  • Re: The history of the Plastics is not over!   from DC Rapier, Feb 29, 2008
  • [no subject]   from Joe, Apr 5, 2003
  • More underground the the Velvet Underground!   from P. Jackman, Sep 13, 2003
  • Re: More underground the the Velvet Underground!   from michael dimitrov, Oct 1, 2003
  • Re: More underground the the Velvet Underground!   from Ricardo Aguilar, Jan 18, 2004
  • [no subject]   from Drozdek, Mar 25, 2006

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