There is a brief, nearly throwaway scene early in Olivier Assayas’s Cold Water (1994) that testifies to the transcultural power of rock and roll. In an apartment outside Paris in 1972, we see two teenage brothers wrestling over a portable transistor radio, trying to adjust the antenna to improve the reception. Suddenly, the opening chords of Roxy Music’s “Virginia Plain” come blasting through the speaker, followed by Bryan Ferry’s voice: “Make me a deal, and make it straight.” The boys freeze; a quasi-religious hush falls over them. “Brilliant,” one of them whispers, wonder struck.
The scene, like the rest of the film, is loosely based in autobiography. In interviews, Assayas tells the story of how he and his brother, Michka (now a renowned rock critic), would tune in to an English-language radio station broadcasting from Luxembourg for their music fix when they were kids. The story strikes a personal chord for me: like them, I grew up in the seventies, under the mad spell of rock and roll, in a culture foreign to it. Rock music was scarce in Kolkata, where I spent my teenage years, because India restricted Western imports to encourage the domestic music industry. I subsisted on a diet of bootleg records, procured with considerable effort and some risk, since the country legally deemed them “smuggled goods.” In one of the bittersweet ironies of postcolonial life, it was rock—not Indian music—that constituted the formative soundtrack of my adolescence. Far from India but marked by a similar colonizing influence—that of Anglophone music and culture—the youth of Cold Water listen to no French music, just American and British rock and roll.
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