At 7:30 p.m., a motley crew of around 200 filled Gaston Hall on Tuesday. At first glance, it seemed a typical lecture event, except for the fact that students were sitting next to faculty members, rock stars and the occasional diplomat. The group gathered to witness the premiere of “Free to Rock,” a documentary directed by four-time Emmy-Award-winning filmmaker Jim Brown and a coinciding panel discussion several diplomats including Hungarian ambassador Andras Simyoni.
“Free to Rock” follows the story of rock ‘n’ roll in the second half of the 20th century and its spread through the Iron Curtain, featuring interviews with Jimmy Carter, Mikhail Gorbachev, Elvis Presley, The Beatles, Beach Boys, Billy Joel, The Scorpions and the Iron Curtain rockers, and tracking the key players who drove the rocker scene into the USSR, including Radio Free Europe, Radio Liberty and many voices from the United States.
The film’s main narrative described the unyielding, strained suspended chords of the many American and English rockers that began to arouse the youth of the USSR. Soon enough, underground bands and thousands more clandestine supporters were taking to the liberating rock ‘n’ roll movement.
Decades passed and the movement grew larger, progressively forcing the government to make important concessions. Soviet Premier Gorbachev, featured in the film, loosened the grip the state had on rock ‘n’ roll as the force of the music began to fracture the totalitarian system. The film presents an interesting message: the United States spent trillions of dollars on weapons to end the communist rule in the USSR, though the music of Billy Joel, The Beatles, Metallica and the American-inspired underground rockers in the USSR played as much of a role in enacting change as the weapons did.
The documentary premiere, hosted by Georgetown University’s Laboratory for Global Performance and Politics, the Student Lecture Fund, Center for Eurasian, Russian and East European Studies, Culture and Politics and BMW Center for German and European Studies, took place in Gaston Hall and was followed by a discussion moderated by Georgetown professor Cynthia Schneider. The panel included Simyoni, Chairman of National Endowment for the Humanities in 2014 William D. Adams, Soviet musician Stas Namin, the film’s director Jim Brown and the first American producer of Soviet rock bands. Joanna Stingray.
Schneider began the panel by asking Namin to share his most meaningful encounters with rock ’n’ roll and which figures meant the most to him.
Namin, an influential music personality in Soviet rock, described his father, a military pilot during World War II, who loved rock ’ n’ roll and influenced his music taste. He named Jimi Hendrix as his favorite artist and talked about the time he spoke with Billy Joel, the first American artist he met.
“When you speak, you speak to the mind, but when you play the guitar, when you play rock ’n’ roll music, you play to the heart,” Simonyi said. “Rock ’n’ roll music … became a part of my diplomatic work. You can talk big politics all day, but rock breaks stuff down. Rock ’n’ roll music was not soft, this film is a testament to the fact that it is as hard as nuclear weapons.”
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