The Plastic People Of The Universe

  • 2001
  • Movie
  • NR
  • Documentary

As Lou Reed points out at the beginning of Czech filmmaker Jana Chytilová's excellent documentary, it's hard to conceive of a situation in which song lyrics could get you thrown in prison and harder to imagine one in which the fate of a country is stirred by a rock-and-roll band. But for all the lip service paid to rock-and-roll revolutionaries, few groups...read more

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Reviewed by Ken Fox
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As Lou Reed points out at the beginning of Czech filmmaker Jana Chytilová's excellent documentary, it's hard to conceive of a situation in which song lyrics could get you thrown in prison and harder to imagine one in which the fate of a country is stirred by a rock-and-roll band. But for all the lip service paid to rock-and-roll revolutionaries, few groups can match the sheer courage of The Plastic People of the Universe, quite possibly the most politically significant, virtually unheard-of rock band in history. Named after a Frank Zappa lyric, the original line-up assembled in the fall of 1968, not in response to the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, bassist and founding member Josef Hlavsa insists, but to the release of the Velvet Underground's groundbreaking first album. The Velvets remained a seminal influence on the P.P.U., who combined the New York-based group's brittle poetry and pounding drone with the more free-form jazz and blues freakouts of Captain Beefheart, Zappa and the Fugs. Encouraged by Ivan Jirous, a leading figure in the Czech counterculture and artistic head of the P.P.U., core members Hlavsa, guitarist and keyboardist Josef Janicek, and drummer Jan Brabec recruited violist Jiri Kabes, Canadian vocalist Paul Wilson and — crucial to the emerging Plastic sound — free-jazz saxophonist Vratislav Brabenec. But just as the band was pulling itself together, things began to heat up around them. After a concert in the small village of Rudolfov ended in police violence, the P.P.U. were targeted by an increasingly repressive and paranoid regime. Using staged wedding ceremonies as a pretext for playing, they captured the attention and admiration of Vaclav Havel, an internationally acclaimed writer and the future president of the Czech Republic. But in February 1976, the boom was lowered with a crash: 27 musicians, including all the P.P.U., were arrested; in September, four of them, including Jirous and Brabenec, went on trial. The arrests and subsequent trial struck a surprisingly resonant chord with a Communist-weary public, and soon served as the nucleus of what eventually became Charter 77, the Czech declaration of independence. Chytlová's film assumes a familiarity with recent Czech history and so forgoes detailed explanation of events, but it's filled with great footage of what must have been a wild time behind the Iron Curtain, and the music itself speaks volumes. Sadly, Hlvasa died of cancer not long after the film was finished. (In English and Czech, with English subtitles.)

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  • Released: 2001
  • Rating: NR
  • Review: As Lou Reed points out at the beginning of Czech filmmaker Jana Chytilová's excellent documentary, it's hard to conceive of a situation in which song lyrics could get you thrown in prison and harder to imagine one in which the fate of a country is stirred… (more)

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