A Brief Primer on Reggae in Film

A Brief Primer on Reggae in Film

During the month of June, TIDAL is the exclusive North American streaming partner for Franco Rosso’s legendary Babylon, a landmark reggae film from 1980. Released for the first time in the U.S., Babylon is part of the rich history of reggae music in film. The story of Jamaican music, in the United States especially, will be forever linked to the big screen.

Prior to Bob Marley becoming a household name, the soundtrack to Perry Henzell’s 1972 film The Harder They Come was the public’s introduction to the genre. But Jamaican music in film didn’t begin there; it started in 1964, prior to reggae’s invention. Over the years, there have been several indispensable films in the Jamaican music canon.

This is Ska (1964)

The British television documentary This is Ska documented performances by such luminaries as Jimmy Cliff, Toots and the Maytals, Prince Buster and Stranger Cole. This was the year of the New York World’s Fair, when a Jamaican delegation brought ska to Queens. This is Ska is a companion piece to that intro, recorded at the hopping Sombrero Club with well-dressed Kingstonians boogieing to the smooth sounds.

Backed by the “uptown” ska band Byron Lee & the Dragonaires (the real innovators, the Skatalites, are noticeably absent), the group played with joyful abandon. The visuals were arresting: Prince Buster sporting an open shirt and what looks like a ‘50s Chicago Cubs cap; Toots and his Maytals dressed to the nines, with Toots, at the peak of his vocal prowess, hooting and hollering along; and Stranger Cole singing the rude boy anthem par excellence, “Rough & Tough.”

This is Ska pushed forward the popularity of ska in Britain in the ‘60s, released by UK labels like Island, Coxsone and Blue Beat (which also became another moniker for the genre itself) and later Pama and Trojan.

Reggae (1970)

In 1970, Reggae – directed by Trinidadian auteur Horace Ové and edited by Babylon’s director Franco Rosso  — was released. At the time, reggae was only two years old, still, this document incisively explores the societal impact of the genre in the U.K., with empathy for both black and white youth culture.

The film’s centerpiece is the famed 1970 Wembley concert, referenced in Babylon. This was a landmark showcase for the music, featuring Toots and the Maytals, Desmond Dekker, the Pioneers, John Holt, Bob and Marcia and others. Interspersed with interviews with players in the British reggae scene (including Trojan Records founders and legendary DJ Mike Raven), the most notable achievement in Ové’s film is how he lets the music explode, framed by beautiful compositions and camerawork and punctuated with playful, rhythmic cuts by Rosso.

The Harder They Come (1972)

Two years later, arguably the most important (and influential) reggae film was released, Perry Henzell’s The Harder They Come. A midnight movie staple, it became a cult phenomenon in the U.S., with an even more popular soundtrack introing the music to the states. The pulp movie was based upon the real-life Jamaican outlaw — and folk hero — from the ‘40s, Ivanhoe Martin (played by Jimmy Cliff).

But it also parallels the story of reggae music itself: the country boy trying to make it in Kingston, the push-and-pull of Rastafarianism with rude boy temptations, the greed of shady record producers — and the ganja. The music for the film was selected by Henzell from Jamaican singles from the late ‘60s to ’72: Desmond Dekker’s “007,” the Slickers’ “Johnny Too Bad,” the Melodians “Rivers of Babylon” and Toots and the Maytals’ “Sweet and Dandy” (which they perform in studio in the film), among others. Jimmy Cliff’s title track was actually the only song written specifically for the film.

Rockers (1978)

It took six years for reggae films to hit the next level with Trenchtown mini-masterpiece Rockers — photographer (and subsequently Errol Morris’ production designer) Ted Bafaloukos’ debut. Originally conceived as a documentary, the film morphed into what is essentially a “tenement yard” version of the Italian neorealist classic Bicycle Thieves, following famed session drummer Leroy “Horsemouth” Wallace on his search for the robber who steals his motorbike.

The film becomes a Robin Hood story and is a snapshot of the hand-to-mouth life of the musicians/“sufferahs” — but with a true joie de vivre. It features many reggae luminaries playing themselves: singers Gregory Isaacs and Jacob Miller, DJs Big Youth, Dr. Alimantado and Dillinger, famed producer Joe Gibbs, Burning Spear singing a cappella on a moonlit beach, and, in the most hilarious scene of all, Richard “Dirty Harry” Hall seizing a DJ booth from a disco selector announcing, “I and I come to change the mood. This is a takeover!” And putting on rockers reggae, of course!

Babylon (1980)

Franco Rosso’s Babylon, harking back to Horace Ové’s film, is focused around the reggae sound system scene, but, more than any other reggae film before and since, it’s about the racism surrounding the black minority — in this case, Caribbean immigrants in Britain.

Reggae and dub (and lovers rock, the British romantic subgenre started in the ‘70s) provide a throughline, and it boasts a proper reggae score — by British reggae producer, guitarist, bassist, ad “dub maestro” Dennis Bovell, of Matumbi. British band Aswad (led by Brinsley Forde who plays the lead in the film) has two tunes, including the mighty horn-laden “Warrior Charge.”

Countryman (1982)

In 1982, a year after Bob Marley’s passing, came Dickie Jobson’s Countryman, with the only double album reggae soundtrack ever released. It was partly an ode to the just-deceased Marley — and featured a percussive ambient score by Wally Badarou.

Jobson — who worked alongside Island’s Chris Blackwell and managed the Wailers during their early years on the label — directed the story of two white tourists crashing their plane and being nursed back to life by the titular character, a real-life fisherman who lived on Jamaica’s Hellshire beach his whole life.

The trio is then thrown into a political plot with a corrupt police officer (played by beloved Jamaican actor Carl Bradshaw) and is followed by a contract killer with his own theme song by Aswad, the heavy “Mosman Skank.” An ode to Rasta mysticism and ital living, Countryman is an ambitious yet campy workout.

And more:

Numerous other films round out reggae on film: among them actor Calvin Lockhart’s only film as a director, Every N****r is a Star. That film has a soul hybrid reggae soundtrack by Boris Gardiner, the title track of which was sampled by Kendrick Lamar on “Wesley’s Theory” and also showed up in Barry Jenkins’ Oscar winner Moonlight.

There are also documentaries like Jeremy Marre’s Roots Rock Reggae (featuring some of the only footage of Lee Scratch Perry at his famed Black Ark studio); a six-part TV series on Jamaican sounds, Deep Roots Music; Jerry Stein’s Word Sound and Power; a portrait of famed session band Soul Syndicate; and James P. Lewis’ Heartland Reggae.

Lewis’ film documented the One Love Peace Concert in April 1978, organized to end the violence between the two political parties in Jamaica: Prime Minister Michael Manley’s socialist People’s National Party and Edward Seaga’s right-wing Jamaican Labor Party. It was the first concert appearance by Bob Marley after his attempted assassination, and culminates with Marley doing a rousing rendition of “Jammin’”, in which the superstar beckoned Manley and Seaga to the stage and held their hands together while the crowd roared.

Publicity still from the film The Harder They Come, a drama starring Reggae musician Jimmy Cliff, Kingston, Jamaica, 1972. (Photo by John D. Kisch/Separate Cinema Archive/Getty Images)

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