You may have noticed recent commercials featuring Dennis Hopper shilling for rosy retirement planning with Ameriprise. It’s a clever switch, putting the iconic fuckup in an ad for responsible wealth management, but he feels trustworthy because, after all, he’s on our side, right? Counterculture figures (the more harmless the better) provide aging boomers with gleeful nostalgic touchpoints, opportunities to feel good about all the good done during that storied time known as “the ’60s.” Furthering the comfort are the blisteringly sweet Big Chill sounds of the Spencer Davis Group’s “Gimme Some Lovin’“–a bull’s-eye into the hearts of baby boomers (and the rest of us, too, since we’ve inherited the nostalgia, whether we asked for it or not).
But why does the commercial work? Because it uses a great song, sure, with a bright and sweaty riff, a tic-tocking beat and a glowingly young Steve Winwood yelping with a fire that denies the depths of crappiness he sunk to by the ’80s. The song is almost entirely subsumed, one could argue, by its coding on behalf of the nostalgia industry–which is a shame, because it’s a terrific song. Another example: Joe Cocker’s “Feelin’ Alright,” used unabashedly for a zillion film previews but perhaps never more perfectly than with the recent Jack Nicholson vehicle The Bucket List, in which his character is given a short time to live and makes the most of it for himself and likewise-terminal Morgan Freeman by using his vast personal fortune to make memories all over the world (maybe he invested with Ameriprise). Finish the Easy Rider trifecta with Peter Fonda hawking the CD collection Flower Power on late-night infomercials.
Not even the higher culture of theater is immune from the lure of ’60s rock. Tom Stoppard is a product of the era (his first play, Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead, debuted in 1966), and in Trevor Nunn’s current Broadway staging of his most recent play, Rock ‘n’ Roll, Stoppard takes a tender, sometimes rousing and thoroughly sentimental look at themes familiar to his fans: idealism, ideology, the possibility of love and the transcendental capabilities of art and literature. Rock ‘n’ Roll (at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre through March 9) depicts the life of young, progressive, Eastern European Communists as, essentially, a struggle against brainless apparatchiks. It’s the story of a Cambridge professor, Max, and his student Jan, a young Czech who returns to Prague in 1968 “to save socialism.” Max is a die-hard British Communist Party member long after Stalin spoiled that club, and Jan’s ambition seems to be to humanize Communism through Westernized artistic hedonism. Jan is a huge rock fan, his shelves of albums his most prized items, and he consistently praises his favorite Czech band, the Plastic People of the Universe, for being (given the analogy of repression as a “witchhunt”) “pagans.” This pagan spirit is a persistent theme, and Stoppard ties it in with Syd Barrett (founding member of Pink Floyd), as well as PPU. In the darkness between scenes, thirty-second or minute-long musical snippets blare, and information about each song is projected on a scrim.
It’s no surprise to find the Plastics in a play about the Velvet Revolution: Famously, they were jailed for playing their music, inspiring Charter 77, Vaclav Havel’s damning indictment of the Czech government, which ultimately led to the dissolution of Soviet Czechoslovakia. One might wonder where the other Czech bands are in the story. The Plastics were, and continue to be, highly publicized–but as the New York Times recently wrote, they are hardly the band (or the only band, or the only anything) that “catalyzed democracy in Czechoslovakia.” But let’s not quibble. We have a dichotomy set up: rock music on the one side, meant to evoke a kind of supra-political potency, and actual political life on the other, meant to seem hollow, hateful and really no fun. So the play’s soundtrack ought to reflect that, right? The songs will illustrate the ways aesthetics equal freedom from tyranny.