Karel Gott and the stories we tell
The few weeks between Christmas and mid-January feel like a dead zone. The excitement and festivities of the holiday season have already faded into memory, with the promise (or dread) of a new year just around the corner. It’s a calendar purgatory where the only comfort to have from the cold outside is hot drinks, blankets and Netflix.
And so it was that after the inevitable hour-long scroll through the options fueled by indecision, I found myself watching the documentary ‘Karel’.
The name Karel Gott is larger than life for Czechs. A superstar at a time when the concept of superstars was yet to be invented. Under the communist regime of her career, her star should not have shone as brightly as it did.
For foreigners living here, the name Karel Gott is something of an enigma. We know the name, sure, but the man behind the golden voice? For me at least, the name “Karel Gott” was a tongue-in-cheek musical meme at worst, and a mere cultural curiosity at best.
The origin story of Karel Gott tells of humble beginnings. From the small town of Pilsen, to the rejected entrance to the school of the arts, to the late-night jazz scene of mid-20th century Prague. His talents and undeniable charms as a singer were quickly noticed by influential figures in the Czech music industry, and quite quickly legions of (mostly female) fans were shouting his name.
Known as the “Sinatra of the East”, he managed to weather the turbulent times of communist rule working in Germany, never turning his back on his homeland. Along the way, he collaborated with some of the most talented artists in the Eastern bloc and became a cultural mainstay of the Czechoslovakian experience (and thanks to a certain comic book bee, of Germany too).
Having a career spanning seven decades is a real miracle. Even today, his songs rank quite well on streaming services, especially around Christmas.
The documentary revealed to me a humble and dedicated artist with a genuine love for country, family and music. There is some controversy surrounding his career, and the film speaks to it somewhat – it’s no secret that for many in the arts community, Gott’s success during communism was an ideological betrayal of freedom and the Czech state.
However, the full story of his life, from youthful thrill-seeking joys in bars and clubs to his final days as a loving father and husband, was truly touching. Here is a man who has truly lived his life to the fullest given the opportunities he has had.
In these times of global pan(dem)ic, hysteria and socio-political crises, the legacy of Karel Gott made me reflect on the stories we tell ourselves. How our personal dreams and goals can become entangled in the larger story, whether we like it or not. At the dawn of a new year, the melancholy of pain and confusion that we have all experienced recently has been brought into sharp relief.
Watching his relationship with his young daughters Charlotte and Nelly also highlighted the importance of intergenerational communication and mutual understanding. Watching these Gen Z kids carry their father’s stories into the 21st century through their own pursuit of arts and music has moved me. Their experience with AirPods and social media couldn’t be further from the history of Nazi and Communist occupation of times past, but the stories they’ve heard will undoubtedly shape them into the adults they will be. .
So, what kind of stories can we tell ourselves at this time? And what stories do we tell our children? There is no doubt that we are going through a time of worry and uncertainty. Have we done our part to improve public health? Did we catch the virus ourselves, and how was it? Was our global community fractured beyond repair? Or will it be just a temporary obstacle in the way of international harmony and understanding?
These are the questions I look forward to answering when my daughter is old enough. Just as Gott reached a ripe old age filled with memory and wisdom, may I proudly share how I wrote my own story in this third decade of the 21st century? What kind of legacy can we leave for our children and their children after them? Will we be able to look them in the eye when they inevitably ask us, “Dad, how did you survive the 2020s?”
The documentary ended with Karel Gott’s final performance and his death from a terminal illness. However, it was a time of hope and optimism. He sang his last song, a reflection on his childhood and the wonders of youth. Yet even in the face of his own mortality, he managed to do so with a smile and a light in his eyes. A lasting image to be remembered by his millions of adoring fans.
Maybe one day we can all be so lucky ourselves. Not to have millions of fans to love us, but happy enough to have just a few loved ones around us, to think of us and remember us, and all the wonderful stories we had to tell.
Kevin is an Australian educator and writer who came to Prague for his doctoral studies in applied sciences and lived with “the sharp claws of Mother Prague” for the better part of a decade. His passion is to explore intercultural experiences and the emerging global face of the Czech Republic as he encounters it day in and day out.