Back to the Roots

Nick Stillman on “Do the Reggae” at BAMcinématek

Ted Bafaloukos, Rockers, 1978, color film, 100 minutes.

REGGAE’S STEREOTYPE as the breezy sound track of good moods may have enabled its pop-cultural integration, but something was also lost in that assimilation. Its relationship to the Rasta movement that produced the music’s most famed musicians (Bob Marley, Horace Andy, Gregory Isaacs) is often—when not cartooned—opaque.

BAMcinématek’s fourteen-film “Do the Reggae” program (August 2–6) is a multifaceted contextualization of Jamaican music history during reggae’s golden age: the mid-1960s through the early ’80s. The popularization of Jamaican music coincided with reggae’s distinct turn to Rasta culture in the early ’70s (the resultant music is usually termed “roots reggae”); unsurprisingly, most “reggae films” were made during the decade when the genre’s popularity was soaring. The essential films are all here, as are some winking references that reggae-heads seem to find irresistible, like a screening of the 1972 Sidney Poitier–directed western Buck and the Preacher, about which the great toaster I-Roy titled and wrote one of his most infectious fast-talking scats.

Roots Rock Reggae (1977), Heartland Reggae (1980), and Deep Roots Music (1983) are all fascinating, but Rockers (1978) and Land of Look Behind (1982) are the signature films—touchstones for any history of the complex connection between Rasta culture and music in the ’70s. Rockers is the best-known reggae film, and though it isn’t a documentary, it often feels like one, and was originally intended as such. A scrawny session musician (Leroy “Horsemouth” Wallace, drummer on many classic Studio One records) wants to supplement his income by selling records. Needing stylish transportation, he buys an expensive motorbike. The bike is stolen by a kind of Kingston mafia, and Horsemouth plots revenge with his crew of musician friends (Burning Spear, Gregory Isaacs, Dirty Harry, Jacob Miller, and several others, some playing themselves). Rockers is a morality tale, and many of its impenetrably slangy—and mercifully subtitled—conversations concern selflessness and the preservation of the Rasta culture, in large part through reggae. The scene where Horsemouth and Dirty Harry “change the mood” in a nightclub by forcibly ejecting the disco DJ/capitalist lackey and launching into a sublime version of Ranking Trevor and the Jays’ “Queen Majesty” is a definitive moment of on-screen reggae.

Land of Look Behind, a stream-of-consciousness documentary loosely centered around Bob Marley’s 1982 funeral, spotlights Rasta culture more specifically, focusing on individuals in rural Jamaica. What emerges is a portrait of Rasta’s (and reggae’s, for the two are close to inseparable until the early ’80s) philosophical structure.

Both films show Jamaican music during its golden age as a profoundly moral music, in some ways the antithesis to the straight-ahead anti-moralism of so much of the rock and soul that early Jamaican rocksteady was modeled on. As one particularly verbose attendee of Marley’s funeral says to the camera in Land of Look Behind, reggae, “isn’t just a rocky-rocky thing. It’s a message to teach mankind to unite.”

“Do the Reggae” runs August 2–6 at the BAMcinématek in Brooklyn, New York.