Somewhere between MTV, Quentin Tarantino, and cinéma vérité -- which is true film for you Francophobes -- stands the iconic reggae gangster film Rockers. Shot on location in the shanties, villages, and jungles in and around Kingston, Jamaica, Rockers debuted at Cannes in 1979, on the same night as Apocalypse Now. Since the 25th-anniversary edition of Rockers was released on DVD last month, it's high time for reggae heads of every stripe to give thanks and praise. South Florida, where more than 300,000 Jamaican residents make up one of the area's largest immigrant groups, should pay special attention.
Movies -- musical or otherwise -- don't get much rawer than Rockers. The brainchild of Greek writer/director Ted Bafaloukos and American producer Patrick Hulsey, it's essentially a cinematic poem about the ultravibrant street culture of late-'70s Jamaica. The plot is meager, almost to the point of nonexistence; it revolves around a struggling drummer named Horsemouth and his scheme to re-steal his stolen motorcycle and get even with a Kingston crime lord. Simple as it is, the premise is difficult to discern thanks to the melodically incomprehensible patois and editing that, by Hollywood standards, is rough and hard to follow. But Bafaloukos' intimate portrayal of Kingston, in all its gritty glory, has multiple layers of beauty and complexity.
And, of course, there's the music.
When you can count reggae greats like Burning Spear, Gregory Isaacs, Big Youth, and Robbie Shakespeare as cast members, you can hardly lose. Bafaloukos' way of inserting musical performances from these legends is a bit contrived but still works because of the story line's easygoing flow. Spear's a cappella serenade to Horsemouth -- written expressly for the movie -- and Isaacs' impromptu jam of "Slave Master" are both highlights. The opening sequence is also a vivid, indelible moment, honing in on an electrifying Nyabinghi drum session under a thatched roof in a drizzling jungle. A house-party scene not only flaunts some of the most stunning, off-the-wall '70s fashion (think Disco Nights, only blacker, more stylish, and totally real) and wicked-cool dance steps but also provides a glimpse of sound system toasting. And the haunting, Rastafarian hymn "Satta Massagana," originally canonized by roots crooners the Abyssinians, wafts through the film like a mantra, appearing as a chant, a horns-only dirge, and as the full-band original: "There is a land far, far away/Where there's no night, there's only day..."About as close as a movie can get to documentary, Rockers takes on its score like its setting, as a living, breathing character.
"It's one of the coolest films I've ever seen," hotshot Brit director Guy Ritchie told Blender in 2002. No doubt Rockers' dramatic use of music and glorification of Robin Hood-style street justice influenced Ritchie, as well as his Yank counterpart, Tarantino. For proof, check the last quarter of the movie, which begins with a montage of our nine badasssss heroes -- wing-collared rude boys and heavy-dreaded Rastas with names like Dirty Harry, Honeyball, and Kiddus-I -- strutting down Kingston alleyways to Peter Tosh's "Stepping Razor." It could easily be a precursor to Reservoir Dogs, done with roughneck, reggae style and much funkier getups. And the quick-shot finale is gripping, turning these low-key street hustlers into savvy, ghetto saviors. It's brutal, clever, turnaround plotting of the most pulp-fictional kind.
The Harder They Come might first come to mind when you think of reggae movies, but Rockers wins out by revealing a more visceral, real-life Kingston. Its plot may be thinner, but Rockers is the tighter of the two, never falling back on easy laughs or stereotypical Jamaican imagery. Cramped interiors, chaotic street scenes, and improvised dialogue keep Rockers purely street-level. Seemingly incidental details tell of conflicts much larger than the story. Poverty, petty crime, the Jamaican music industry, domestic difficulties, prejudice, and religious hypocrisy are never overtly touched upon but hover in the viewer's mind.
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Through it all, Rastafari remains Horsemouth's guiding principle, even as he disregards his own proclamation of "I and I don't steal; I and I don't cheat." Rockers' resolution is a lesson in the ends justifying the means, arrived at through a smog of ganja smoke, diesel exhaust, and righteous intentions and illuminated by a reverence for the music that binds it all.
Apologies go out to the rocktastic fellas in Crease, the Fort Lauderdale fourpiece we previewed in last week's Live Wire by proclaiming that "Crease Is the Worst." Argh! Crease is the word, people, a boast that the band proved true at its CD-release party last Friday. The Culture Room saw some serious spirit from these guys, who must've been busy fine-tuning their sound and blowing up their on-stage bravado in the three years they've been gone. It's big-balled music for fans of big balls, and clearly you're out there, especially the diehards who sung along to Crease's stomping cover of the J. Geils Band's "Centerfold" for the set finale.
If you missed the show, get into the fold at the next one. We'll keep you pasted about when it's going down. Damn! There I go again...