Rocksteady: The Roots of Reggae (Director: Stascha Bader): Well, I’ll get one thing out of the way first. The poster for this movie kind of sucks. But I think if you watch the trailer (embedded below), that might help you forget how bad the poster is. Now that I’ve gotten that off my chest, I think you’ll enjoy Rocksteady: The Roots of Reggae.
I have always been a fan of ska, the fast dance music that originated in Jamaica in the early 1960s. This documentary introduces us to Rocksteady, a musical style that formed a bridge between ska and the slower, more politically conscious reggae music of the 1970s. Even though Rocksteady as a style really only lasted from around 1966 to 1968, its influence can still be found in popular music today, from Jamaican styles like dancehall and reggae to American hiphop. Director Bader takes us on a journey, much like the one Wim Wenders documented in Buena Vista Social Club, gathering musicians together from the era to record again and to put on a reunion concert in Kingston, Jamaica.
But rather than focus on who’s behind the reunion, as Wenders did with Ry Cooder in his film, Bader chooses to have one of the musicians narrate the story of Rocksteady. Wilburn “Stranger” Cole (nicknamed because he didn’t resemble anyone else in his family) recounts how Jamaica’s independence from Britain in 1962 created a new sense of optimism in the country. Young people from the countryside swarmed into Kingston to find work, but there wasn’t enough work for all of them. Rocksteady music mostly focused on themes of romance, but as Jamaica’s social problems increased, the music reflected them. Later, Reggae music would incorporate the same social consciousness with political and religious themes.
The history is effortlessly woven into the story of the reunion, and archival footage of Jamaica in the 1960s is juxtaposed with modern footage, often to dramatic effect. Bader shoots some beautiful scenes in decaying locales, including the old Palace Theatre (where blind Derrick Morgan performs his hit “Tougher Than Tough”) and an abandoned railway station. Combined with the closeups of the life-lined faces of these musicians, it paints a rather melancholy picture. The musicians lament that the country has lost its innocence. Singer Judy Mowatt remembers: “The Rocksteady era was a romantic era. We sang love songs. There was no violence. You could walk the streets of Jamaica at 12 o’clock, 1 o’clock, 2 o’clock without being harmed.” This all changed by the late 1960s when all the young men who had come to the city looking for work found none. These “rude boys” got into trouble with the law, and the streets were no longer safe. Some of the dance halls and theatres were forced to close down after people became afraid to venture out at night. This coincided with a period of change in black consciousness, led by the civil rights movement taking place in the US and the independence movements in Africa. All of these developments led to the evolution of Rocksteady into the Reggae that put Jamaican music on the international map.
With all the excellent background to the music, Bader’s film still works best as a showcase for the songs and the talents of those who performed them. Seeing these musicians come together to play after more than 40 years is a joy to watch. There are generous scenes of the new studio recordings, but one disappointment is that the big reunion concert is really only seen during the end credits. A full concert movie might make a great companion piece to this film. The studio sessions have already been released as a new CD.