SIFF Face The Music 2015 Preview: Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten: Cambodia’s Lost Rock and Roll

Chris Estey

Don't Think I've Forgotten: Cambodia's Lost Rock and RollUSA | 2015 | 106 minutes | John Pirozzi

May 23 | 2:15PM | Renton IKEA Performing Arts FestivalJune 2 | 3:15PM | SIFF Cinema UptownJune 3 | 3:00PM | SIFF Cinema Uptown

A stunningly told and peerlessly edited documentary about the Phnom Penh-based pop music scene of the 50s, 60s, and 70s, Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten is lush with gorgeous sights and sounds, live performances and dance scenes, cover artwork and terrific stories. It's a perfect addition to the Seattle International Film Festival's Face the Music series' dark, tantalizing and exotic themes. (Read more about that here.)The first two-thirds of this epic saga of “Cambodia’s Lost Rock and Roll”, directed by John Pirozzi (Leonard Cohen’s I’m Your Man and Patti Smith: Dream of Life), will thrill those into cool, exotic sounds, going from the genre-mutating energy and accessibility of its elder pop-god Sinn Sisamouth (with his many hits, including “Dance A Go Go” and “Navy A Go Go”), through many groups to the early 70s fuzz-rock of Drakkar (“Crazy Loving You”). All of which seem as luxurious and lusty as a night spent dancing and drinking in the Cambodian capitol city’s music years. But then things get very grim, and what happens to those artists is not for the faint of heart. Cambodian song meanings relentlessly dealt with personal longing for autonomy and against betrayal, reflecting its country’s wishes to remain in progress and not betrayed by the cruel jealousy of others. It’s Pirozzi’s ability to let us so generously in to a gorgeously modernized Cambodian youth culture discovering itself in the geographical and ideological middle of a world of war and brutality between world dominators that makes the turning so heartbreaking. The night club and live venue scenes show exuberant fans gobbling up and participating with uber-melodic demigoddesses like Ros Serey Sothea (“Don’t Be Angry,” “Heaven’s Song”), as well as Cambodia’s own Velvet Underground-meets-Jonathan Richman-meets-Stooges (in their own time) Yol Aularong, singing songs like “Cyclo” (pretty much the blueprint for “Roadrunner” or “Pablo Picasso”) and “Dying Under A Woman’s Sword.”

The secret allure of Cambodian pop and rock music has a lot to do with the fact that the country was importing sounds directly from Cuba and Africa and other indigent sources, not just aping American hits. Its place as nexus in Southeast Asia allowed it to hear the actual raw and regal grooves of bands that actually inspired U.S. rock and roll in its own time, enabling its performers and scene to craft its own voice, musically and culturally. It was only when the Vietnam war heated up nearby that heavier rock and soul came into the mix, but seamlessly as well, played by military stations and lovingly listened to, as earlier generations had gathered outside radio station buildings to hear the burgeoning new Cambodian pop hits of mere years before (because hardly anyone could afford a radio). Now people were making money, and buying equipment and a lot of imported records, and partying became a way of life to escape the stress and fear of war swelling up just outside Phnom Penh. Soon that nexus position would be reason for a Killing Fields that removed almost all glorious memories of expression and culture within a few three years under the Khmer Rouge.

Much Cambodian rock was a unique blend of usually female vocals and surf guitar, groovy organ, pumping bass, and swinging drums. But there’s a lot more here to discover, including some music scene dramas that deserve movies all on their own. This is a long-overdue all-senses tribute to one of popular music’s freshest, sassiest scenes that will live forever musically.

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