Alibi V.24 No.23 • June 4-10, 2015 

Film Review

Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten: Cambodia’s Lost Rock and Roll

Musical documentary charts the sounds of love and war

Don't Think I've Forgotten: Cambodia's Lost Rock and Roll ()

Directed by John Pirozzi

Rock and roll sounds so much better with matching suits.
Rock and roll sounds so much better with matching suits.

When you think of great rock and roll cities, places with distinctive histories and sounds, you might name Detroit or Philadelphia or San Francisco, certainly you could pick Los Angeles, maybe even Manchester. But you’d have to go pretty far down everybody’s list to get to a place like Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten: Cambodia’s Lost Rock and Roll attempts to right that wrong, exposing audiences—very likely for the first time—to the southeast Asian country’s surprising and dynamic musical history.

As a documentary Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten carries with it a sense of discovery so profound it’s practically archaeological. Hearing the splashy, surf-tinged music and the piercing, Lesley Gore-style vocals; seeing the women in the white go-go boots and the men in the pink shark skin suits; gazing at the impossibly colorful record sleeves—it’s like an entirely new chapter of music history has been opened up to us. And it’s awesome. How did we not know about this? How has this sound eluded us for so long? How is mid-’60s Cambodian Pop not the obsessive topic of note among hipster cognoscenti?

Through modern-day interviews with Cambodian musicians, DJs and music fans, and an amazing amount of historical footage, the film fills us in on the details. In the early 1950s, the royal family of Cambodia peacefully broke free from France, ushering in a new era of independence. Spreading its wings at the height of the mid-century, Cambodia and its people rushed to embrace modernity. The royals were incredibly supportive of the arts in general, and of music in particular. Already highly attuned to music, the Cambodian people absorbed western pop tunes with a phenomenal enthusiasm. The swinging pop of England’s Cliff Richard, the bad boy rockabilly of France’s Johnny Hallyday, the Latin-tinged guitar rock of Carlos Santana, the screaming soul of wicked Wilson Pickett: All went into the blender of Cambodian culture and came out the other side with a distinctively Asian flavor.

“In music and song, there are no borders,” declares one of the many interviewees in Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten. Unfortunately, this is not so true of politics. In 1975 Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge overthrew the rule of King Sihanouk and—much to the shock of the Cambodian people—strangled all local arts and culture under the guise of creating a perfect workers’ paradise. Nearly all countries have a rocky history, but Cambodia in the mid- to late-’70s had it exceptionally hard. Practically overnight, it went from a modern, progressive, forward-thinking country to a backwards, oppressive regime filled with impoverished farmers and brutal military leaders. Artists and musicians were seen as the enemy, puppets of decadent western culture. Some fled the cities and hid their skills. A few relented and endlessly performed the national anthem with a military band. Most were simply killed.

As you can probably guess, this is not a happy bedtime story. As a result, Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten isn’t just a nostalgic story about a fruitful period of musical innovation. It’s an elegy for a fleeting era that died all too soon. What this film captures so beautifully, however, is the way music instinctively captures a time and place. The popular music of Cambodia changed from joyously celebratory during the golden times to heavier and more rebellious as the clouds of civil war gathered to depressingly jingoistic and traditional as the Communist government took over.

Directed by longtime cameraman John Pirozzi (Boys Don’t Cry, “Person of Interest”), Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten is as expressive as it is explicative. A dazzling whirl of images and editing drop viewers right into the groove of 1950s, ’60s and ’70s Cambodia. It’s as if “American Bandstand” and “Mad Men” had a baby. Dark as the narrative is forced to get at times—thanks to the march of history—it never loses the idea that music is essential to us as human beings. You can ban songs from the radio and burn the vinyl they were recorded on, but you can’t force a tune out of people’s heads. As a survey of Cambodian musical history, Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten is just the tip of the iceberg. As an allegory for the role that musicians play in rebellion and cultural change, however, it’s number one with a bullet. And if it makes you wanna rush right out and dig up records from the likes of Baksei Cham Krong or Pen Ran, so much the better.