The strange but true legend of Coloradoan-turned-pop-star activist Dean Cyril Reed is dusted off for a new generation in workmanlike docu “The Red Elvis.” “Zelig”-like story of the Commie crooner who advocated terrorism while dutifully paying his American taxes from the German Democratic Republic makes for capable fest fodder that will attract comrades on cable and homevid.
“Communism is not perfect,” Reed wrote GDR leader Erich Honecker in a note found after the singer’s mysterious death in 1986. “But it is the only hope for solving humanity’s great problems.” With his chiseled good looks and Marxist idealism, “this amazing guy from America,” as thesp Armin Mueller-Stahl describes him, took a circuitous route to Cold War pop stardom.
Born and raised in the Denver suburbs, Reed saw four albums tank in the U.S. by 1960. Sent by American label Capitol on a South American promotional swing, Reed found stardom and a political cause in Chile, eventually counting Salvador Allende among his friends. An invitation to Moscow resulted in an improbable rock release there, and after building a career in Italian Westerns, he settled in East Berlin in 1973 in East Berlin with German interpreter Wiebke Reed.
Preaching global peace even as he was photographed in Lebanon toting guitar and automatic weapon, Reed subsequently balanced popular success with an unlikely succession of photo ops with people including Yasser Arafat. Through it all, the singer never renounced his American citizenship.
Interviewees include Will Roberts, helmer of the 1985 Reed profile “American Rebel,” as well as the prominent women in his notably active love life. Even the last GDR leader, Egon Krenz, weighs in on Reed’s influence. Rather too much time is given over to conservative Denver radio personality Peter Broyles, who relates a 1985 on-air faceoff with Reed, who’d returned home for the Denver Film Fest preem of Roberts’ biopic.
For all the kitsch and provocation, the pic feels curiously superficial and slightly rushed. Nor will it settle ongoing debate over Reed’s true motives: History may cast him as a naive idealist, but the pic makes clear his unabashed commitment to socialist ideals.
Tech credits showcase newsreel footage, movie clips and soundbites of Reed in action. Final shot of the singer’s dead body provides a jarring coda. Tom Hanks’ Playtone shingle has owned rights to Reed’s story since 2004.