Rock Steady The Roots Of Reggae

Rocksteady: The Roots of Reggae

Muse Entertainment Enterprises (2009)

Director: Stascha Bader
In the mold of the ‘Buena-Vista Social Club’, ‘Rocksteady: The Roots of Reggae’ follows a group of musicians reuniting after not having played together for many years. In this case, the players date back to Jamaica’s Rock Steady period – a relatively brief period in the late 1960s between the Ska and Reggae eras. While the genre was short-lived, the musical output was massive and the influence long-lasting. For this reason it seems appropriate that there is finally a film addressing this particularly fertile period. As many of these artists having been living in either the United States or Canada in recent decades a reunion was an appropriate way to revisit and reevaluate this music
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To its credit the film does not solely focus on singers – although such greats as Derrick Morgan, Stranger Cole and Ken Boothe make key appearances. Much of the film also focuses on the musicians – such veterans of the period as Gladdy Anderson, Jackie Jackson and Hux Brown. A great deal of the film involves us eavesdropping on the reunion recording sessions – as the musicians interact with singers such as Judy Mowatt, Marcia Griffiths and Dawn Penn. However the players also share some laughs as they recall the old days – particularly the dances from various musical periods. The musicians also good-naturedly spar about the history of some songs and events. Still, what we get the most of is the re-recording of a number of Rock Steady favorites at Tuff Gong studios last year. There are also a few wonderful shots of musicians playing outside – Derrick Morgan along with Brown and percussionist Scully performing ‘Tougher Than Tough’ in the now abandoned Palace Theater and Leroy Sibbles together with the Tamlins singing ‘Equal Rights’ seaside. There is also a wonderful, if short, scene in which Stranger, Gladdy and Headley Bennett visit the Alpha boys school – an institution through which many of the early luminaries of Jamaican recorded music passed. There is also a build up to a reunion concert although unfortunately the film shows very little of that event.

I really like the way the film addressed the social and economic issues of the times. There is also some interesting talk about how some entertainers were all but forced to live and work abroad. This is especially well done as the sequences are placed around train-themed songs and train station footage. Stranger Cole tells a particularly poignant story about living in Toronto and working in a toy factory. Cole also has an amusing but telling story about being paid in ice cream for some of his early singing. The issue of religion is also addressed in and around scenes of ‘By The Rivers of Babylon’ be re-recorded as there are recollections about, and archival footage from, Haile Selassie’s 1966 visit. Hopeton Lewis, by example, shows viewers how church was a part of his musical life both before and after his Rock Steady singing career. This section of the film also touches on a key aspect of the Jamaican music story – country people traveling to Kingston in an effort to eek out a living or make it is a performer. It is interesting to note that there is some divergence between the descriptions of the period – with Judy Mowatt reflecting on carefree and violence-free times and other performers such as Ken Boothe discussing about the rise of political violence and ‘rude boys’ (as the young hooligans of the time were called). Perhaps these types of discrepancies are to be expected when people reflect back on a period that is now over forty years in the past. In addition it points to the fact that Kingston has never been a homogenous place.

The film does have a few drawbacks. For instance, while the stories of the film participants are told, other key figures from the period (Alton Ellis, Desmond Dekker, Phillis Dillon, etc.) are scarcely mentioned. This is most irksome in the case of Lynn Taitt (who arranged music for the film before he became ill) in that many in Jamaica acknowledge the arranger/guitarist as the inventor (or at least the key figure) of the genre. Rather than solely linking Rock Steady to Jamaican music the film could have addressed the much more complex and interesting fact that Taitt was from Trinidad and has maintained that his guitar style was linked to his youth as a steel pan player. It is also a bit of a mystery as to why Sly Dunbar – admittedly a great drummer – is playing on these sessions rather than one of the drummers who is more closely associated with the late 1960s. There are also sections of the film that are wildly off-topic – particularly the recollections of the I-Threes touring with Bob Marley (something that didn’t take place until several years after the Rock Steady era). In addition, hearing Rita Marley discussing her early days with Bob Marley is both tedious and not related to Rock Steady. If ever there should have been a film to point out there is more to Jamaican music than Bob Marley this could have been it. Sadly the filmmaker’s do not fully take this opportunity.

On the whole this is a very satisfying film. The studio footage is incredibly well filmed and there is a lot of good humor (including a couple of unexpected and very funny gags). The interviews with the artists also shed a lot of light on this much neglected period of Jamaican music. Much of the cast recently played a highly-successful concert at the Montréal Jazz Festival. Fans of this music can only hope that footage of this event materializes as well … perhaps as bonus on the inevitable DVD.

Jim Dooley