2:24 pm Aug. 2, 2012
Reggae music represented a revolution in sound for the world, but for the Jamaican public it was something even bigger.
In its embrace of Afrocentrism and its popularization of the weed-soaked lifestyle-cum-religion of Rastafarianism, for a brief period in the island nation's history the music felt like it could completely transform a society struggling to shake off the remnants of colonialism. It's also telling that this moment, spanning roughly 1970-83, mirrored the rise and subsequent deification of the man who would become reggae's biggest star, Bob Marley, a kid from the slums of Trenchtown who some 30 years after his death from cancer in 1981 might be the world's most popular musician.
"Do The Reggae," a film festival launched by BAM Cinematek that starts tonight and runs throughout the coming weekend, celebrates this period of postcolonial ferment. Scheduled concurrently with the six-night bacchanalia now underway on the island itself in celebration of its 50th year of independence, the 14 films in the series are split between documentaries and features; both are littered with as much struggle as they are halcyon stoner fantasy. There are only fleeting signs here that the Cold War cast a pretty imposing shadow over the nation in those years, a circumstance that could explain why in some ways the sense of possibility and dashed hopes seems akin to America's Summer of Love. Great music is at "Do The Reggae"'s center, and given how much the electro-infused Jamaican music style called dancehall has supplanted the sounds of Marley, Jimmy Cliff, and Toots Hibbert's enduring Maytals (the title "Do The Reggae" comes from a Maytals hit), the best films are a worthy time capsule.
A cult favorite now restored in high-def, Rockers (1978, dir. Theodoros Bafaloukos) is a hoot even if you don't know that its cast of music heavies makes it a tenement yard version of the Rat Pack in Ocean's Eleven. Before the director contrives the somewhat unclimactic heist, however, he manages to unearth equal parts social realism and humor. Drummer Leroy “Housemouth” Wallace plays himself, a fine musician and half-hearted family man whose well-intentioned entrepreneurial aspirations don't preclude community in Kingston's tough music scene. The camera reveals the island's deep class consciousness as the intricate networks connecting music production to both the tourist trade and organized crime are displayed.
To give the viewer an idea of how remote the hills of Jamaica's Trelawny Parish are, Alan Greenberg's impressionistic documentary Land Of Look Behind (1982) opens with a shot of a parish map with locales like “Me No Sen, You No Come,” “Quick Step,” and the film's title, “Look Behind.” The film zigzags between the hills, various small towns, and the city, making good on the “combination of spiritual and temporal” expressed by one of Greenberg's philosopher Rastas. It's a gorgeous, unapologetically nonlinear film, and much of the solemnity of the hills is mirrored in the more inhabited areas, for good reason: Half of it was shot in the aftermath of Marley's death, as the people in the streets and countryside mourned a national hero.
The 1972 landmark The Harder They Come (dir. Perry Henzell), which turned singer-songwriter Jimmy Cliff into an international star, also solidified the idea of the Jamaican rude bwoy or, to quote a song in the equally powerful soundtrack, “Johnny Too Bad.” This film earned its rep as Jamaica's cinematic jewel long ago, but it's interesting to watch it next to the bits of Cliff as a talking head in Roots Rock Reggae, another doc included in the "Do The Reggae" series. He makes a statement that could have sprung directly from the mind of Ivan, the would-be singer-turned-shoot-'em-up rogue he plays in The Harder They Come. “People say that justice is a notion, but it's something real for me. I don't want to be the pawn on the chessboard, to be pushed by whoever is playing. I want to be pusher.”
The find in the series, Babylon (1981, dir. Franco Rosso) moves the action to Thatcher-era London, where the Jamaican diaspora caught fire in the neighborhood of Brixton. This skillful, multitextured dramedy is as illuminating on the inner workings of music posse (or “sound system”) culture in Britain as it is on nation's grim racial realities. A decade earlier director Franco Rosso was credited with editing Horace Ové's Reggae (also in the series), a documentary that is thought to be the first concert film devoted to Jamaican music. With Babylon, his long connection to the Black British community became vibrantly obvious.
Admittedly, Heartland Reggae (1980, dir. James P. Lewis) might be a hard concert film to recommend without its backstory. The One Love Peace Concert of 1978 was born out of a truce between two jailed members of Jamaica's violently warring political parties, and it was also the scene of Bob Marley's much-heralded return to the island after a politically-motivated assassination attempt in 1976 sent him into exile on the eve of another performance. The climactic footage of Marley in a three-handed clinch with socialist leader Michael Manley and U.S.-backed Edward Seaga (the bitter rivals for prime minister) has been used exhaustively, but the full riveting performance of “Jammin'” is worth it, as are those of “War,” “Natty Dread,” and “Trenchtown Rock”. Peter Tosh does one for the cultural nationalists (“400 Years”) and another for the stoners (“Legalize It”), while Inner Circle's shirtless and chubbily energetic lead singer Jacob Miller (whose life was cut short in an auto accident long before the band recorded the theme to "Cops") takes the latter a step further: Daring the local police to arrest him for unabashedly brandishing a spliff.
The 'Do The Reggae, film festival is showing at BAM Cinematek Aug. 2-6.
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