This is part of our coverage of the 2015 Seattle International Film Festival.
Fans of Seattle’s essential record label Sublime Frequencies may already be familiar with the sound of Cambodia’s music scene from the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s. The country’s music during that time was often a unique blend of Western-style rock and traditional Eastern singing styles. Sublime Frequencies gets a shout out in the credits of John Pirozzi’s documentary Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten: Cambodia’s Lost Rock & Roll, which tracks the country’s wild regime changes over those years and the concurrent development of their music.
The film is a hybrid of sorts of recent docs Searching for Sugar Man and The Act of Killing but it is not as revelatory as either. Since the rise of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge are fairly well-known world events, it’s the mini-biographies of the country’s biggest music artists that are the most engaging. One artist in particular, the freewheeling Yol Aularong, who writes songs about hitting on women in maternity dresses, is a unique talent whose music and looks leap off the screen.
Understandably there isn’t a lot of archival footage from this era so Pirozzi fills the gap between talking heads with reenactments of teens dancing and animations bringing record covers to life. Occasionally, he gets too busy with the images. His visual tendencies particularly get the best of him in the third act when the Khmer Rouge’s regime is at its height and we get red filters and overwrought reenactments.
The film’s greatest asset is the songs and it is chock full of them. It’s a nicely curated soundtrack and anytime the music takes center stage the film is on good footing. Pirozzi picks his songs well, syncing them up to reinforce or comment on the political and social landscape at the time. By the end, when we hear the country’s most beloved performer, the crooner Sin Sisamouth singing the song that gives the film its name, we get goosebumps. Music always wins.
(Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten: Cambodia’s Lost Rock & Roll plays 6/2 & 6/3 at SIFF Cinema Uptown.)