When one thinks of your prototypical 1950s teen pop idol, the image of a hammer and sickle doesn’t generally come to mind. In fact if anything, one thinks of the squeaky-clean, all-American image of infantryman Elvis Presley during his two-year overseas military stint. But most Americans haven’t heard of Dean Reed — known as “The Red Elvis” — and that’s because most of Reed’s fame as a country pop crooner was actually found in South America, and it was there that the Colorado native was radicalized in the midst of the region’s political upheaval.
It all sounds pretty unbelievable — and it just gets weirder from there — but luckily Chilean filmmaker Miguel Ángel Vidaurre has taken on the historical task of rescuing Reed’s legacy for new generations of Marxists and music fans alike with the feature documentary Gringo Rojo. As the film shows, Reed’s years living and working in the Southern Cone during the late-60s brought him face to face with the ugly side of American interventionism, while introducing him to the socialist politics of Salvador Allende and Chile’s UP. After some time as an actor in Italy’s spaghetti westerns, his politics ultimately took him to East Germany where he ultimately became a Soviet pop idol.
But Vidaurre isn’t so much concerned with weaving together a traditional biographical narrative, as he is with exploring different representations of the so-called Gringo Rojo. Included are the emblematic moments of Reed’s life, from his high-profile “washing” of the American flag in front of the U.S. Consulate in Santiago, to his decades living in East Berlin, his triumphant but dangerous return to Chile under Pinochet, and finally his mysterious death in an East German lake at aged 47.
Vidaurre turns almost exclusively to the wealth of archival material surrounding his subject to tell this story, avoiding reliance of interviews and talking heads that are more characteristic of television documentaries. The result is a fascinating look back at one of the United States’ most peculiar 20th century pop phenomena.