Rare Plastic People footage unearthed for series of collector’s DVDs

Plastic People of the Universe

The Plastic People of the Universe are known around the world for their refusal to comply with the Czechoslovak communist authorities throughout the 1970s and 1980s - and their particular brand of Czech psychedelic rock as well. In recent years, former band member Ivan Bierhanzl and filmmaker Keith Jones have embarked upon an ambitious project to sort through the hours and hours of historic footage of the group to make a series of DVDs dedicated to the ‘Plastici’, but not, necessarily, as you know them.

Following the success of the first DVD, which has all but sold out and become something of a collector’s item, work has begun on the second in the series. Former Plastics’ bassist Ivan Bierhanzl tells me where and how it all began:

“It’s about four or five years ago when I met Keith at the MOFFOM (Music on Film, Film on Music) festival, and I told him that there was a lot of old footage of the band The Plastic People of the Universe, and so we discussed some possibilities of how to cooperate between the band and the festival. And actually the first DVD came out of this cooperation with MOFFOM. Also there was a screening I think four or three years ago. During the festival there was one event here in the Lucerna cinema where we showed some newly-discovered footage and also some known footage from the history of the band.”

You are now embarking on the second of these DVDs, what is the difference between this and the first of the DVDs you have brought out?

“The first one was focused just on the year 1997, when the band played together again for the first time in almost 16 years. We’ve got some quite nice footage from amateurs as well as professionals from two concerts. One of the concerts was in the Akropolis in Prague, the other was in Plzeň, plus there are some interviews with the members of the band, plus there’s a photo gallery from the same year. But this next DVD should be more historical, so we would like to put there the earliest footage which goes from 1969 to the mid-1980s.”

Ivan Bierhanzl
One of the central points of this next DVD will be a short documentary made by FAMU students about the band in 1969. The film was shot at a time when the Plastic People were still singing in English. Ivan Bierhanzl suggests that it is a wonder the footage was found at all:

“The footage is in the hands of different people in different countries. And of course it was sometimes a bit of a detective story to try and find something. For example, this oldest footage from 1969 we found in Uruguay. Because the film director was a student of FAMU here in Prague in the late 1960s, and after the political changes he left Prague for Paris and then New York, and then, in the mid 1980s he went to Montevideo. And this video was completely forgotten for almost 40 years, and then we discovered the original prints in Montevideo just two years ago.”

So how did you find them, because it is not all that instinctive to go to Uruguay to look for footage of the Plastic People?

“You know, it was quite a complicated story, first we were in the FAMU database of all of the students who had ever gone to the school. And we found this address of a student from 1969 who came from Montevideo. And so I just asked Czech telecom to find the phone number for this address, and they texted me it. So, I tried to call there and there was a guy speaking fluent Czech down the phone, you know. It was him, it was Cesar de Ferrari, but after 40 years, he was still sitting in his parents’ house where he had been living in 1969 as a young boy. So, this was a good coincidence.”

Keith Jones is an American-born filmmaker who is working on putting the series together. I asked him what exactly he would classify these DVDs as – a series of rockumentaries, or a historic document?

“It’s an artist DVD, the series is designed not to be a proper documentary or a real film, because that has been done. What hasn’t been done is to collect valuable and historically interesting materials connected with the history of the band from different eras and make it accessible to the general public, and because the DVD series is done in partnership with Levné Knihy and was originally associated with the MOFFOM festival, it has always had a very public dimension and it has been about exposing this material. But it is not supposed to be a documentary, it is more a collection of materials which, when taken together, expose a sort of secret history of the band.”

Ivan Bierhanzl has gone through reels of old footage to make these DVDs, does it not make him nostalgic to see all of this old film again?

“You know, for me it was very nice to get this old footage, and also for the other, for the original, members of the band. Because they were very young, and especially this film from FAMU - it is really very good quality. It is 35mm print and it was never shown anywhere so there are no faults with it, it is an absolutely clear picture. It is very nice, the sound is clear and so on. So, of course, there is a sense of nostalgia, of course.”

And do you remember doing all of the things that you are captured on film doing?

“You know, I was so young in the late 1960s. I was a kid, and I was only in the band from the late 1970s to the early 1980s so, that’s it.”

The Plastic People of the Universe cycle of DVDs started a couple of years ago with the release of footage from two 1997 concerts. I asked Keith if the making of the first DVD had taught those involved any valuable lessons for the making of the second:

“I think we’ve learned a lot from the entire process, not just from making the first DVD, because it was conceived from the beginning as being a series of several DVDs which will actually run for years. And also in terms of having the public screenings through the Česká inspirace programme which were combined with performances by the band in smaller towns around the Czech Republic, what we learned is that there is a big interest in the history of the band and in these rare materials everywhere, not just in Prague. That this is not just a question of the Prague underground, but that this is a part of the history of Czech culture which has value and meaning for a lot of people. And once we learned that and saw how successful the first one was, selling 5,000 copies, it really forced us to look at it in a different way or take it in a different light.”

The second Plastic People DVD will be out in the autumn if all goes according to plan. Expect a third, and quite possibly final, installment in the series in 2010.