Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Where Are the Rebels?

If you ever wondered what Petula Clark’s “Downtown” sounds like in Czech, Rebelové (The Rebels) is the film for you. Check out this youtube clip of dubious providence to satisfy your curiosity, because this 2001 Czech movie musical is not currently available on DVD in North America.

Rebelové begins as a colorful, splashy teenaged love-story movie musical. It translates a number of familiar English-language 1960’s pop tunes, like “Downtown” and Nancy Sinatra’s “Sugar Town,” into Czech for some breezy, if slightly goofy, musical numbers. However, as the story advances, the mood gets progressively darker. After all, it is set in 1968 Czechoslovakia.

Perhaps that is why Rebelové has never reached the audience it deserves in America (yes, this is an if-you-release-it-I-will-review-it post). It starts out as Hairspray (without cross-dressing) and concludes like The Lives of Others, except gloomier. Spoiler (if you think you will ever see it): In fact, as Rebelové ends the young lovers are separated, with the young army deserter cooling his heels in solitary, as his true love and her family make a break for the border.

Downer endings do not usually cut it with American musical audiences, but Rebelové was a big hit with Czechs when it was released. Clearly, the story of young lovers literally separated by Soviet tanks touched a nerve with viewers old enough to remember the dark days of the invasion. It was even adapted as a Czech stage musical two years after its screen release (Broadway has certainly adapted weirder fare).

I saw the film on a Czech Air flight, and totally fell for it. Call me sentimental, but it is unusual to see a film evolve in tone the way Rebelové does. Prague is on my mind as I will be back there soon for a family function (of which I’m an honorary member). At a time when my friends tell me the memories of life under Communist oppression are starting to dim in the younger generations, New York theater goers will get a fresh reminder when Rock ‘n’ Roll, Tom Stoppard’s new play about the Prague Spring, opens on Broadway, assuming the stagehands do not strike. That would be a fitting irony if a questionable union action postponed a production about the struggle for free expression in Eastern Europe.