Popular music is not the first thing that springs to mind when Westerners think of Cambodia, the war-torn country that lies between Vietnam and Thailand. Cambodia was the site of President Richard M. Nixon's early-1970s "secret war," waged in support of the larger U.S. effort in Vietnam. Soon after, Cambodia became the focus of global attention as communist dictator Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge wiped out an estimated two million people — or about one quarter of the country's population.
That tragic history is what makes director John Pirozzi's documentary Don't Think I've Forgotten: Cambodia's Lost Rock and Roll so essential. Covering roughly the mid-1950s — when a vibrant music scene took root in the capital city of Phnom Penh — to the fall of the Khmer Rouge in 1979, the film tells the complex story of modern Cambodia through the lens of the country's music artists. The new perspective makes clear the human cost of ideological conflict while spotlighting a largely secret branch in the genealogy of popular music. History may belong to politicians, dictators and other masters of war, but you'll never understand the soul of a people without taking a long, close look at their cultural life.
The Phnom Penh of the 1950s and '60s, vividly brought back to life in Don't Think I've Forgotten, was known as "the pearl of Southeast Asia." After peacefully breaking free of French rule in 1953, Cambodia devoted itself to political neutrality, industrial modernization and culture in all forms. Its mostly benevolent ruler, Prince Norodom Sihanouk, placed special emphasis on the country's centuries-old musical tradition.
Phnom Penh became a musical melting pot as Cambodia's indigenous music absorbed strong influences from Cuba, South America and France. It was further transformed by records brought to the region by U.S. troops. The city attracted musicians from rural outposts, and its nightlife flourished. As seen in the documentary through previously unreleased archival footage, the variety and depth of Phnom Penh's musical cross-pollination brings to mind a rocking Southeast Asian New Orleans.
Early on, the film plays like a secret history of rock 'n' roll from an unseen parallel universe. The music goes through familiar stages, from innocent '50s pop and early '60s garage rock to hippie-era psychedelia and '70s hard rock. Sounds derived directly from Western sources are not hard to identify, but original music also shines through. The film profiles influential artists in some depth, which makes perfect sense — you couldn't tell the story of Western rock 'n' roll over the same time period without pausing to reflect on Bob Dylan, The Velvet Underground or The Clash.
Balancing Don't Think I've Forgotten's archival material are new interviews with surviving musicians and their relatives, music fans, historians, political figures and royalty, which is crucial as this life-affirming film inevitably turns very dark in its final third. The presence of survivors of the Khmer Rouge telling their stories of personal loss rescues the film from its potentially troubling juxtaposition of pop-culture exuberance and wartime atrocities. If there's a single message here, it's that cultural life is fragile and must be protected — wherever it happens to flourish.