Film Review: 'Magický hlas rebelky' (The Magic Voice of a Rebel)

Film Review: 'Magický hlas rebelky' (The Magic Voice of a Rebel)

In the late 1960s, at the height of the Prague Spring, singer Marta Kubišová was one of Czechoslovakia’s greatest talents, touring France with Václav Neckář and Helena Vondráčková as one of the Golden Kids: pop producer Bohuslav Ondráček’s answer to the kind of bubbly music sensations that had been dominating Western culture but were potentially dangerous commodities under the communist regime.

Kubišová wasn’t just another pretty face: her deep, soulful vocals – a bit of Dusty Springfield, a bit of Marlene Dietrich, but entirely her own (“perfect in its imperfections”) – was instantly recognizable as one of country’s leading voices. Along with Neckář and Vondráčková, she was plucked from obscurity at Prague’s Divadlo Rokoko to become an unlikely pop sensation. 

But that’s just the beginning of her incredible story. Director Olga Sommerová traces her journey in Magický hlas rebelky (The Magic Voice of a Rebel), a compelling new documentary that follows Kubišová’s humble beginnings to Prague Spring fame, oppression under Soviet normalization, and eventual Velvet Revolution comeback. 

Sommerová, a documentary filmmaker whose career spans four decades, is no stranger to this kind of subject matter; among other work, she previously made a TV documentary on the signatories of Charter 77, and 2012’s Věra 68, a portrait of Olympic gymnast Věra Čáslavská, who famously stood up for reform in 1968 and suffered greatly for it. 

But Marta Kubišová might be Sommerová’s most fascinating subject yet. As a young woman, Kubišová wasn’t allowed to study because her father – a prominent internist – had refused to cooperate with communist authorities. So when Soviet tanks rolled into Prague in 1968 to halt the Prague Spring reforms, Kubišová wasn’t about to sing for them (as opposed to Helena Vondráčková, whose conspicuous absence from this documentary is telling). 

As Kubišová’s ballad Modlitba pro Martu (A Prayer for Marta) became a national symbol of resistance, Soviet authorities became concerned with her popularity and her refusal to cooperate. They put pressure on producers and colleagues to stop working with her, and circulated doctored pornographic photos; the government banned her from performing in public, and her image was tarnished. By 1970, even as Kubišová received her third Zlatý slavík (Golden Nightingale) in a secret, her mainstream career was over. 

But Kubišová wouldn’t go down that easily. Rather than flee the country with her then-husband, film director Jan Němec (Diamonds of the Night), Kubišová remained and became a counterculture icon. Perhaps unwittingly. Her explanation, forty years later, for why she remained in Czechoslovakia instead of furthering her career abroad: “we have the best chlebíčky.” 

In 1977, despite continued pressure and frequent monitoring from authorities, Kubišová became a spokesperson for Charter 77, the underground human rights movement that stood up against the oppressive regime; some of Magický hlas rebelky‘s most heartfelt moments come from archive interviews with Václav Havel, who worked with Kubišová during this time. Her activism took a backseat to personal life in 1979, when she gave birth to a daughter, Kateřina. 

In 1989, having been robbed of the prime of her career, Marta Kubišová sang Modlitba pro Martu and the Czechoslovak national anthem at Wenceslas Square during the height of the Velvet Revolution. This led to a revival of her long-dormant career, but contemporary scenes in Magický hlas rebelkyreveal that the singer doesn’t quite have the same voice, which has been scarred by decades of cigarette smoking. 

As opposed to Olga, the documentary of Olga Havlová released earlier this year, there isn’t any artistic pretense on the behalf of the filmmaker here: Sommerová employs mostly traditional techniques – talking heads, archive footage, and contemporary shots of Kubišová with her daughter, friends, and others – and this is a story that tells itself in an engaging and efficient manner. It helps that there is a wealth of period footage to work from. 

Original music by Aleš Březina compliments a wonderful array of Kubišová’s hits from the past four decades (but mostly from her late-60s heyday), including (among many others) Nechte zvony znítMagdalénaRing o DingMamá, and briefly (possibly to avoid a rights issue) Hey Jude. My favorite: Oh, Baby, Baby, which features the Kids dancing around a circus ground (unfortunately, no online video seems to exist.)

While Marta Kubišová – and her story – should be known to most (all?) Czechs, this documentary is an engaging journey through her history up to the present day, and a must for anyone who isn’t familiar with the singer. The country may have lost twenty years from one of their greatest talents, but Magický hlas rebelky helps keep her spirit alive.

Interesting side note: Magický hlas rebelky was partially financed through crowdsourcing, successfully raising 200,000 CZK through the website Hithit.com; contributors are thanked in the film’s end credits. It’s great to see crowdsourcing help finance a worthy project on the local market that may not have enough support from the traditional route.

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