The World 11.12.2007
Dean Reed never made it big here at home. But the American singer was a star of the Soviet bloc in the 1960s and 70s. He moved to East Germany, where he became an ideological pop star. But Dean Reed's fan base dwindled as support for the East German regime waned. He died in 1986. Now a German documentary is introducing Reed to a generation that never lived behind the Berlin Wall. It's called "The Red Elvis." Susan Stone reports from Berlin.
Filmmaker Leopold Gruen says, growing up in East Germany he wasn't much of a Dean Reed fan.
GRUEN: "I thought his music was terrible, and I wasn't interested in his films. And I saw him as a bit of an absurd figure who had found a place in GDR society. So to me, Dean Reed was a bit of an odd ball, and I never thought much about him."
But when a friend from West Germany wanted to know more about the American singer who'd hit it big in the East, Gruen started looking deeper. He uncovered a complex portrait of a naïve man who fought for the underdog, idealized a shining concept of freedom, but later became a posterboy for the East German regime. On top of that, he was a self-obsessed womanizer. The perfect subject for a documentary.
Dean Reed's Beach Boy looks and pleasant voice earned him just minor success as a singer and actor in the US in the 1960's. But when this song, "Our Summer Romance," became a surprise hit in South America, he went on tour.
During trips to Chile, Argentina and Brazil, Reed became passionate about left wing politics and worker's rights movements. He began to speak out against the Vietnam War, and went on hunger strikes. He befriended Chilean leftist president Salvador Allende, and became a champion for socialism.
Reed's new-found mission took him through the Eastern Bloc. He was mobbed by admirers in Moscow, and settled in East Germany in 1972, where he became a communist heartthrob.
DAVIS: "Dean has always been the guiding star in my life. Pretty much everything I have is because of him."
In the film The Red Elvis, we meet Lana Davis, who was born in the Soviet Union. Her love of Dean Reed inspired her to learn English and eventually move to Colorado, where the singer was born and buried. Davis says Reed's visits to the USSR were bright lights in a grey existence, even if his political pronouncements seemed a bit fuzzy.
DAVIS: "He would think it's a free country and a really good country, but we were oppressed. But he himself was a holiday for us. And we would forget how poor and oppressed we were."
REED: "Together, we'll work in our own ways to build a world of peace. You are building a railroad, you are working to make socialism stronger, and in that way you are also building this world of peace. Let us hold hands, let us go forward together."
In East Germany, Reed became a willing tool of the regime, singing at official events and repeating the party line.
He stood as a potent example of what a great place the world was under communism. Surely if this handsome American chose to live behind the Berlin Wall, or sing songs in Red Square, things had to be good in the East.
But by the 1980's, things weren't so good for Reed. His personal life was a mess, and he'd hit a wall with his career behind the Iron curtain. So he planned a comeback tour of the US.
In 1986, Dean Reed appeared on 60 Minutes.
He told Mike Wallace he'd like to run for senate in Colorado. And he compared then President Ronald Reagan to Joseph Stalin.
REED: "Mr. Reagan says he's going to make Star Wars. He's putting me in terror. He's putting millions of people live in terror from a third word war. That's also called State terrorism."
The public response in the US was overwhelmingly negative, and it hit him hard. A few months later, at the age of 48, Dean Reed took his own life, drowning in a lake outside East Berlin. He never saw the fall of the Berlin Wall, just three years later.
In the past few years, there's been a renewal of interest in Reed's strange story. The soundtrack to Leopold Gruen's film includes remixes of Reed's music for a new audience. And Tom Hanks is said to be researching a feature film about Dean Reed... meaning the Red Elvis could finally make it big in Hollywood.
For The World, I'm Susan Stone in Berlin.