With dissent looking dangerous in a nation suddenly too unified for its own good, the unlikely saga of the Plastic People of the Universe, the Czech art-rock band who fought the law and the law lost, seems timelier in Jana Chytlová’s made-for-Czech-TV documentary than it might have six months ago. The Plastics were one of many late-’60s Prague bands inspired more by the Beatles and psychedelic rock than political repression. Soon hair length, vulgarity, and English-language band names were deemed sufficiently dissident to earn persecution from the post-Dubcek government. Threatened with loss of the state support they needed to perform in public, the band chose amateur status, and in the early ’70s moved to the country, where they took jobs in forestry and performed at “private” events like the weddings of friends—both before and after they were detained and brought to trial in 1976, with two Plastics eventually sentenced to prison. In response to the case, Václav Havel and others formed the human rights organization Charter 77, which seeded the resistance that would culminate in the Velvet Revolution. So without any message more explicit than the non-negotiability of self-expression, the band helped mobilize passions and networks that would bring down a regime.
Hooked around a reunion concert that marked Charter 77’s 20th anniversary, the film takes survivors of the band and the era to historical sites such as Havel’s barn (a Plastics haven), a burned-down safe house qua venue, a prison cell, even the old Electric Circus building on St. Marks Place, where Milan Hlavsa, in town for the band’s only New York appearance, honors its great stars, and his great influence—the Velvet Underground. The New York captured here could pass for Eastern Bloc: gray, drab, hopelessly dirty. By contrast, Czech locations—sunny kitchen, cozy café, rural roadside—seem gentle, comforting. The film has little formal pretense. Its visual interest resides almost exclusively in the aging faces of the strange-looking bunch who paid a high price to live out what Havel nails as a vision of “mutual respect for the elementary moral imperatives, the basic need for freedom, and the longing for an authentic unorganized sociability.” Here are horse-jawed saxophonist Vratislav Brabenec, grizzly-locked viola player Jíri Kabes, younger-looking keyboardist Josef Janícek, and world-class, self-taught bassist Milan Hlavsa, effectively the band’s leader—handsome in shoulder-length black hair—in what would be the last years of his life.
Also interviewed are oft-imprisoned Plastics artistic director Ivan Jirous, the much older beat poet turned lyricist Egon Bondy, and Lou Reed, whose importance to this group ultimately brought him to—no way!—the White House, at Havel’s request. Such twists are so bizarre, and the story so worth documenting, that it’s easy to forget this film’s shortcomings. For the non-Czech audience, the overview may be patchy. Viewers who know heroes aren’t saints deserve more information about the band’s internal rifts, the main thing that kept them nonfunctional after 1988. With history this juicy, the music gets upstaged—it’s a limitation of the medium. Missing is the sense that beyond their cultural impact, the Plastics were a very great band, whose murky, slablike, jazz-inflected sound and big sludgy undertow of a beat certainly could draw in listeners on its own. Still, cinema does provide a dream come true for fans of music in foreign tongues: subtitles.