Do The Reggae At Bamcinematek, August 2-6, 2012

From Thursday, August 2 through Monday, August 6—the 50th anniversary of Jamaican independence—BAMcinématek presents Do the Reggae, a 14-film series dedicated to the country’s unique and widely influential musical tradition. Focusing on vintage films from 1971 to 1983, the series opens with the Trenchtown-set Rockers (1978), Ted Bafaloukos’ rousing Rasta adaptation of De Sica’s The Bicycle Thief. Also screening are seminal nonfiction exploration Land of Look Behind by Alan Greenberg, three parts of the British series Deep Roots Music, Jeremy Marre’s Roots Rock Reggae, and possibly the earliest feature film on reggae, Horace Ové’s Reggae. The series is named after Toots and the Maytals’ eponymous song—the first to use the word “reggae.”

Reggae was born in the late 60s from previous genres ska and rock steady, all stemming from Jamaica ’s folk music, mento. Distinguished by the offbeat accent and socially conscious influences including the Rastafarian faith, reggae is a deeply experimental and influential musical form, single-handedly paving the way for rap, hip-hop, and the remix (invented in the early 70s in Jamaica ). Through decades of political unrest in Jamaica and racial violence against Caribbean immigrants in Europe and North America , reggae in all its forms has endured as an essential conduit for social protest, individual expression, and spiritual exploration.

Although Perry Henzell’s The Harder They Come (1972—Aug 3) is widely considered the watershed film about reggae, Ted Bafaloukos’ Rockers (Aug 2), showing theatrically for the first time in New York in over a decade in a new hi-def restoration, is the original artifact of Rasta cinema. The only feature by Bafaloukos, Errol Morris’ longtime production designer, Rockers is essentially The Bicycle Thief in a tenement yard and follows renowned drummer Leroy “Horsemouth” Wallace playing himself in this loose yet subtly powerful portrait of scraping by in the shanty town. Both a celebration of Jamaican music and culture and an eye-opening document of the hand-to-mouth life of musicians, Rockers’ “nonstop soundtrack…and mountaintop prophesies that reveal the spiritual roots of reggae establish what the music business means to impoverished islanders and how the drug-fueled religious ceremony behind the music matters even more than money” (Noel Murray, The Onion AV Club). As a special bonus, Rockers will be followed by “Downtown Top Ranking in a BAMstyle,” a party at BAMcafé with Deadly Dragon Sound System and featuring legendary DJ Ranking Joe on the mic.


Henzell’s aforementioned classic pulp tale The Harder They Come features Jimmy Cliff as island outlaw Ivanhoe Martin. Before Bob Marley made it big stateside, Cliff took the midnight movie circuit by storm, unveiling this new reggae sound to American audiences. Based on the namesake Jamaican bandit and folk hero from the 40s, the film not only made Cliff a star, but tells the story of reggae in a microcosm: the country boy going to  Kingston to make it big, the push-and-pull of the Rasta spirituality and rude-boy swagger, the greed and mafia tactics of shady record producers, the ganja (of course), and a love for the movies, with Cliff’s bad-boy persona crystallizing at a rowdy screening of a spaghetti western (see Buck and the Preacher below for more on the western genre in reggae).


The gems of the series are its documentaries, and possibly the greatest nonfiction portrait of Jamaica is Alan Greenberg’s Land of Look Behind (1982—Aug 3), an exquisitely profound meditation on the island—from its Rasta tenets to its still-endemic colonialist tendencies and history of tragic political violence. Greenberg, who worked with Werner Herzog on Heart of Glass, took the German master’s longtime cinematographer Jorg Schmidt-Reitwein to Jamaica . The pair documented a country in flux after the death of Bob Marley, including awe-inspiring shots of the funeral procession (used liberally in the Kevin McDonald’s new documentary Marley). The result is one of the most poetic travelogues ever committed to celluloid, as well as an indictment of a police state rife with violence and poverty. One of Jim Jarmusch’s favorite films (he called it “striking… beautiful… near-perfect”), Land of Look Behind is a chilling, heartbreaking, and stirring small masterpiece, and Greenberg’s only film.


Famed music documentary producer Jeremy Marre (James Brown: Soul Survivor) went to the island for a mere snapshot of the music scene at its height and returned with Roots Rock Reggae (1977—Aug 5), a unique hour-long document most famous for rare footage of influential producer Lee “Scratch” Perry gesticulating wildly behind the boards at his celebrated Black Ark studio. Marre also trains his lens on reggae forefather Vincent Chin’s renowned record store, Randy’s; harmony trios The Abyssinians and The Mighty Diamonds live at their peak; DJs U-Roy and U-Brown riding the riddims (rapping); and Inner Circle at their most famous, living high up in the hills of Kingston away from the “sufferation.” Legendary reggae producer Clive Chin (son of Vincent Chin) will appear for a Q&A after the screening.


Howard Johnson’s Deep Roots Music (1983—Aug 5) is the closest thing to a comprehensive documentary on reggae, ending in the dancehall era of the early 80s. Incisively narrated by none other than DJ Mikey Dread (The Clash’s producer and reggae mentor) and shot by award-winning DP Roger Deakins (No Country for Old Men), this seminal, multi-part history of reggae is no PBS-style primer. Letting the music speak for “i-self,” this British series lingers on performances and evokes the languid, severe island life while honestly exploring the spiritual and militant aspects of reggae. Individual episode descriptions are listed below.


One of the most revelatory films in the entire series, and quite possibly the first feature ever made on reggae, is master director Horace Ové’s documentary on the genre, Reggae, which has not shown in the US in decades. The centerpiece of Ové’s film is a 1970 UK concert featuring Toots and the Maytals, Desmond Dekker, the Pioneers, John Holt, and others. For such an early exploration, Reggae is remarkably prescient for understanding both the societal impact and force of the music, with an empathy for both black and white youth culture. The Trinidadian-born auteur, who later explored Black Power in Britain with Pressure, is not only an incisive interviewer with players in the British reggae scene, but also lets the music explode, complemented by beautiful compositions and camerawork and punctuated by playful, rhythmic, and ironic editing by Franco Rosso (Babylon—Aug 4).


The series features numerous other essential but rarely screened works in the genre: Babylon (1981), Franco Rosso’s cult feature on sound systems in Britain; Jerry Stein’s Word, Sound and Power (1980—Aug 5), a portrait of seminal session band Soul Syndicate, which Greil Marcus calls “the closest film audiences are likely to get to modern Jamaican music and to the ideas, experiences and emotions behind [it];” James P. Lewis’ Heartland Reggae (1980—also Aug 5), which documents the most important live reggae event of its era, the One Love Peace Concert, featuring Bob Marley in his first appearance after his attempted assassination; and Dickie Jobson’s Countryman (1982—Aug 4), a delightfully campy Rasta fisherman cult political adventure. And, as a special tribute to great 70s DJ I-Roy, Do the Reggae includes his favorite film (and the subject of an eponymous song), Buck and the Preacher (1972—Aug 4), an antebellum black western starring Sidney Poitier (also making his directorial debut) and Harry Belafonte as the title characters, guiding a wagon train of newly freed slaves west to frontier exodus—possibly the Rastafarian-est western ever made.


Do the Reggae closes with the world premiere of OnePeople, a crowd-sourced documentary comprising video submissions from individuals around the world expressing—through song, dance, poetry, landscapes, artwork, and stories—what Jamaica means to them. Produced by Justine Henzell (daughter of Perry Henzell), this Jamaica-50 project will premiere simultaneously in London and Kingston , exemplifying the nation’s motto by uniting the work of many filmmakers into the collective film of one people.