Dionisio Arce, the lead singer of heavy metal band Zeus, spent six years in a Cuban prison in the early '90s for having long hair and playing the music of the capitalist enemy. A decade later, the band became part of the communist government's Agency of Rock.
By joining the Castro regime, did Zeus sell out, or was the band making a necessary compromise to keep playing its music and to bring more cultural and artistic freedom to Cuba?
That's one of the main questions posed by the new documentary Los Últimos Frikis, out now via video on demand and streaming. The film, which was made in association with the Moving Picture Institute, was shot between 2009 and 2019. It charts the rise and fall of Zeus after a period in which Cuba's communist government jailed and tortured musicians, artists, activists, writers, and other free-thinking "freaks," or frikis in Spanish.
Rock music had become a popular outlet for the angst and aspirations of young Cubans starting in the 1970s. By the '80s, however, government officials started to crack down on these anti-authoritarian headbangers, whose work they branded a dangerous "ideological diversion" from the revolution. Zeus' lead singer, Arce, had been part of a trendsetting heavy metal group called Venus that was banned from performing entirely.
Up through the early '90s, many rockers continued to be imprisoned, including Arce, who is the central character in the film. But after the fall of the Soviet Union cut off Cuba's primary source of revenue, the country's dictator Fidel Castro faced a near-total economic collapse and was forced to accept some cultural and market liberalization.
To attract foreign investment, the government aimed to give the outward impression that ordinary Cubans had cultural and artistic freedom. The Castro regime reversed course on rock and started giving heavy metal bands like Zeus the freedom to perform openly through the government-sanctioned Agency of Rock—as long as they stayed within the boundaries of acceptable expression. Around that time, Arce was released from prison, and he proceeded to find even greater fame as the lead singer of Zeus.
But as director Nicholas Brennan chronicles in the documentary, Cuba's post-Soviet openness to rock came with strings attached. The government presented the band with a Faustian bargain: partner with the newly created Agency of Rock, and in exchange, Zeus would be able to perform before huge crowds at the only major rock venue in Havana.
Produced, written, and edited by Justin Monticello; audio production by Ian Keyser
Photos: Courtesy of LOS ÚLTIMOS FRIKIS; Ernesto Mastrascusa/EFE/Newscom; Yander Zamora/EFE/Newscom; Marcelo Montecino, CC BY-SA 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons