Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten: Cambodia’s Lost Rock and Roll lives up to its title. It provides a primer of Cambodian rock ’n’ roll from the 1950s to the ’70s, before the Khmer Rouge took over. The practitioners of Cambodian pop music were sponges for any new style they could translate and transmit back. They co-opted the French chanson style, ’50’s rockabilly, garage and psychedelic rock with stunning speed and great enthusiasm.
The documentary’s first 45 minutes is a giddy whirlwind as various musicians recall how they began playing and absorbing Western influences. You can hear the excitement in their voices as they remember their teenage selves of 50 years ago. Director John Pirozzi throws tons of vintage footage and adorably dated album covers at the viewer, and his reenactments absolutely drop you in what feels like a whirlwind of prosperity, creativity, and freedom.
At the time, though, villagers who lived in the countryside were dirt-poor and starving. Cambodia was ruled by King Norodom Sihanouk, who was a great lover of the arts (every musician interviewed remembers him fondly) but was far from a benevolent leader. He brooked no rebellion. This bit of information is introduced and then ushered away quickly, just another in the faster-than-light speed of facts and sounds that comprise the film’s first half. However, it’s a foreshadowing of what’s to come.
The tone turns dour pretty quickly as Cambodia dissolves into civil war and then becomes pitch-black when the Khmer Rouge come into town and quite literally enslave the entire country. The regime can hold its own among the most heinous groups to walk the earth. Responsible for the death of a quarter of the Cambodian population, they easily fit into the ranks of Nazi Germany, Stalin’s Soviet Union, and a current incarnation, ISIS. And they were not fond of musicians. To survive, you either lied or played only traditional Cambodian music. To see the artists interviewed joyously remember their youth and then to have them describe the death of friends, the loss of their music, and the destruction of their country is heartbreak of the first order.
Pirozzi does a strong job connecting the schizophrenic music scene with the mood and customs of the country. One observer states that Cambodia had just been a French protectorate, then was ruled by a king, who was deposed in a coup, which was followed by a military dictatorship, and then the Khmer Rouge came along. It was an ancient country that had modernized very quickly, and the music and its society reflected that.
The third act is particularly devastating as the musicians recount friends and family lost. All the joy from the first half evaporates, yet there is the hope that the music and the joy that it brought will live on. Thanks to the film, it will.