Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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SINGING THE BLUES IN RED (1989)

***

With Gerulf Pannach, Fabienne Babe.
Directed by Chris Menges.
(Angelika Films, color).

By Robert Christgau and Carola Dibbell

You'd never know it from the film's antiprofessional look and ostensible subject matter, but you've seen Singing the Blues in Red before. The protagonist, an East German protest singer forced west by his radical politics, hooks up with a high-powered label, then meets a pretty French journalist who leads him to his long-lost father, himself a musician forced west by his politics. And in the end, who's pulling the strings? The CIA, of course. Sound familiar?

We yield to no one in our distrust of intelligence agencies, and we enjoyed seeing this sort of thing done from a perspective marginally more undefeated than the pawns-in-their-game fatalism that's degenerated into nihilism since the dawn of Three Days of the Condor and The Formula. The film's most stirring moment comes when the singer demolishes a West German culture minister's pious talk of artistic freedom with some succinctly impolite analysis--not only the character but the actor seems to know whereof he speaks. And we were glad he kept on keeping on after learning that his dad wasn't the paragon he believed. But the theory that the world is one big conspiracy has definitely lost some of its entertainment value.

It does have the virtue, however, of explaining how he got his record contract, which his performances sure don't, though the title song that closes the film generates a credible intensity. In fact, given the ridiculous inside glimpses of his record company early on, we're glad on the whole that Singing the Blues in Red turned out to be a spy movie--revising a Hollywood cliche about politics instead of succumbing to a Hollywood cliche about the music biz.

Video Review, Oct. 1989