The conventional story of the relationship between rock ’n’ roll and the Vietnam War is told through American and British protest music, songs of defiance that condemned a violent, seemingly endless conflict half a world away. What is so often lost amongst these West-centric pop-countercultural stories is that rock’s wide-ranging international reach is so often overlooked.
Such was the case in Vietnam-bordering Cambodia, which, until the Khmer Rouge’s 1975 coup of and subsequent administration of genocide, possessed a rich and growing popular music tradition tragically cut short by international conflict and the growing prospect of civil war. Records were destroyed, star musicians were assassinated in the shadows, and those who survived did so by either renouncing and denying their identities as singers or producing artless propaganda for a new state governed by intimidation and blood.
This story is intricately rendered by John Pirozzi’s documentary Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten: Cambodia’s Lost Rock ’n’ Roll. The film not only surveys a vast archive of Cambodian popular music produced from the 1950s to the Khmer Rouge’s occupation, but it uses this music as an insightful platform from which to examine the devastating and long-lasting affects bloody global conflicts have on culture. This is a fascinating, beautifully realized story that urgently needs telling and a history very much deserving of a recovery.
Pirozzi doesn’t begin with the Khmer Rouge or even allude to their consequential presence for over an hour. Rather, he opens with Cambodia’s independence from France in 1953, wherein its constitutional monarchy pushed for the production of art and culture to be a national value, thereby forming a self-actualized Cambodia. With the exception of some brief gestures to the troubling results of such centralized state power, this monarchy is (surprisingly, to this viewer) reflected upon with nostalgic rose-colored glasses. And this is because Pirozzi’s history understands one key difference in the relationship of a nation to art, regardless of how that nation might be organized: a culture of art that builds a national identity is far more open to art rendered in direct service of the nation, the latter of which is often no art at all. Indeed, for a monarchy, 1950s Cambodia is presented as a remarkably open, liberal and contemporary state, an impression best evinced by its music.
European jukebox musicals starring Johnny Halladay and Cliff Richard made their way to Cambodia, inspiring a generation of local rock groups. Latin American records also were imported, and Cambodians found creative hybrids between indigenous musical styles and the cha-cha. Psychedelic rock and James Taylor covers made a splash on Cambodian radio as the Vietnam War amped up and emboldened a cultural exchange of tunes between U.S. soldiers and the then-neutral border country. Musical taste was far-reaching, democratic and omnivorous, making few high/low distinctions that have bogged endless debates about authentic popular music-making in the West. Cambodia’s favorite crooner, Sinn Sisamouth, even made a seamless transition to rock mid-career. Pirozzi’s history of a pre-Khmer Rouge pop music utopia is well-argued, extensively researched and enthusiastically represented, making the sudden halt of self-empowering pop culture all the more horrifying.
Pirozzi’s history is patiently laid out and never foreshadows the events of 1975, which helps Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten feel immediate and tangible rather than a remnant of history framed from hindsight. The filmmaker constructs the growth of Cambodian popular music in a fashion similar to the way its populace may have experienced it, and manages to motivate his interviewees to speak of the past in a way that brings it starkly present, giving viewers access to his surviving subjects’ mental space as they lived this history.
Occasionally integrating various styles of animation and other inventive but non-invasive artistic flourishes amongst his archives and interviews, Pirozzi shapes a rich tapestry of history that comes across as authoritative and authentic — this is what it means to tell history as a compelling and affecting story. The only thing I could ask for in addition to the wealth of material so elegantly presented here is an epilogue that more legibly connects the legacy of the Khmer Rouge to Cambodia’s present state of popular music.
Recent years have seen an influx of revealing documentaries about the rock ’n’ roll and its variants in non-Western countries. Rich nonfiction works like Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer and Death Metal Angola chart how rock is used a platform for protest or a means of overcoming trauma. In short, a narrative of conflict seems to be something that follows rock ’n’ roll wherever it travels. Where Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten departs from these other works is that rock doesn’t serve as a mode of righteously instigating or curing conflict — rather, rock is presented as a mode of peace, harmony, national unity and empowered self-expression that is viewed as a threat only by a sudden shift in political power.
Together these recent films show how genres of music take on vastly different roles in their socio-historical contexts. But what Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten accomplishes on its own is a challenge of the sense of permanence we typically assume of commercial popular music. In a state of violence where all music could suddenly be lost, the relationship between popular culture and war takes on a far more troubling register. Pirozzi excavates the past as a means of fighting an injustice after the fact.
This review was originally published on April 22, 2015.