Music Within: Rocksteady—The Roots of Reggae, Soundtrack for a Revolution

FILM, Film Festivals

Jamaica’s most famous reggae export was proudly celebrated by the World Cinema Showcase with last year’s screening of The Harder They Come. This year, the autumn film festival returns with Rocksteady: The Roots of Reggae, a documentary tracing the genre which gave rise to some of popular music’s greatest songs, songs such as The Paragons’ ‘The Tide is High’ (without a doubt one of the great pop songs ever written—how many great melodies does that song possess?), Dawn Penn’s ‘You Don’t Love Me (No, No, No)’ (which has picked apart by hip-hop samples) and Desmond Dekker’s ‘Shanty Town (007)’. Reuniting many key figures to perform in a rocksteady reunion show, the film is worth recommending on the back of its seminal music alone. However, it could have incorporated even more music, given the choice cuts that rocksteady threw up in the 1960s.

Comprised of talking heads, occasional stock footage, and re-workings of the songs by many of the original artists themselves, Rocksteady isn’t too ambitious as a documentary. It tries to let the music speak for itself, and without a doubt, there’d be few other reasons to see this film other than to get a sense of the music’s importance. Rocksteady fell in between ska and reggae, and in the 1960s laid the scene for the internationally well-travelled genre of reggae. Obligatory mentions to Bob Marley are thrown in as a result, with the film’s finale perhaps overstates itself by having Marley’s widow reminisce about where she and Bob used to have sex. It’s almost a shame to have the music re-enacted (though it does give a sense of the ‘contemporariness’ of the music), as the originals are still so potent. And yet Rocksteady is a thoroughly enjoyable recreation and contextualisation of the music itself, and another excellent documentary that manages to bring great music back to life.

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Perhaps the greatest achievement by Barack Obama in being elected President is transcending the racial politics that seem to dominate American cultural life—though it’s hard not to feel horrified at what many of those who were deemed “black” had to endure throughout US history. Moments such as the Martin Luther King Jr. and Medgar Evers assassinations, and the Mississippi Civil Rights murders have been portrayed on film before, and countless documentaries on the tumultuous period post-1955 have been made. Soundtrack for a Revolution approaches this time from a musical perspective, utilising the music to tell the story of the civil rights movements. While it’s successful as a historical document, its musical focus is perhaps a little half-baked.

Music played a major role during the civil rights movements, so it’s easy to see how the music can be an effective ‘in’ for a documentary to describe the era. Soundtrack for a Revolution, sadly, fails at this key task, falling prey to being star-struck. Part of the problem is that the music is detached—instead of the originals forming the soundtrack, the film utilises contemporary artists ranging from Joss Stone to The Roots to perform the music in an isolated studio setting. One can see why this was done (cough, soundtrack sales), however it does render the music visually and aurally lifeless. Which, given the incredible range and significance of the music in question, is perhaps a little too damaging.

Even so, the film works effectively as a historical recreation, in spite of occasional clunkiness (particularly, the final image of Obama, which seemed inevitable). Archival footage, interviews, and some potent flourishes (the humanisation of civil rights’ victims for example was brilliantly done, as was the photo comparison of the interviewees to their 60s police mug-shots) all create a resonant story. Given the sheer outrageousness of places like Alabama and Mississippi, it would have been hard for a powerful narrative not to emerge, and the recreation of events is certainly moving. While the story would have been even more effective if the soundtrack hadn’t been so banal, it remains a compelling reminder of the movements which gave “blacks” the chance to vote for the first time, the chance to navigate around their country freely, and above all, the chance to end centuries of segregation. And that is a story worth listening too.

‘Rocksteady: The Roots of Reggae’, Dir. Stascha Bader
Switzerland/Canada, 2009; 97 minutes
‘Soundtrack for a Revolution’, Dir. Bill Guttentag, Dan Sturman
USA, 2009; 82 minutes
The World Cinema Showcase 2010 graces the following centres: Auckland, Academy Cinemas, March 25-April 14; Wellington, Paramount, April 1-18; Christchurch, Rialto Cinemas, April 15-28; Dunedin, Regent Theatre, April 22-May 5.