Jeremy Marre’s landmark music documentary series began 30 years ago in 1977 in Jamaica with Roots, Rock, Reggae
There are plenty of gems in it like hearing the Abyssinians sing a cappella to ‘Satta Massa Gana’ and then having it transposed to an ‘Ethiopian’ church service down the road or seeing Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry at work in the Black Ark Studio.
There are omissions too of course. Bob Marley is represented only by footage of him playing and the Upsetter himself is never interviewed either. Or perhaps he was and the result was unbroadcastable. Either way, one is left with the impression that this is a team of film makers who could get some great stuff but by no means got everything they wanted.
In reality, they had to film it on a shoe-string, raising the money for the filming by getting a second mortgage on the director’s house, so a little slack is in order. Working with limited film stock, a single camera, musicians who would pull out knives if they felt they were not getting a good deal and a host of other challenges makes the story about the filming almost as interesting as the documentary itself, so the director’s commentary is fascinating.
On it, Jeremy Marre admits to being a fan of The Harder They Come and there is a conscious reflection of this country boy tale with Jimmy Cliff popping up again and again plus shots of rastas in the hills. And just as in the classic film, this tale shows the whole process of recording music from pitching the song to a recording boss, the studio work, cutting the acetates, selling the 45s in the shops, playing them on the radio and dancing to the results.
The effect on European TV audiences of seeing spliffs the size of ice cream cones back in the mid seventies must also have been quite fun and no doubt added to reggae’s legendary bad boy status. British audiences almost never got to see the show though when the BBC cooled on the whole project. Fortunately, the French picked up on it and after winning an award, the BBC aired it — on a number of occasions.
This is a slightly scattered film at times, looking at politics, poverty, music and history. Nevertheless, it broke down the doors for future films that would give a harder edge to how popular culture would be covered on screen and captured a potent moment in time.
Essential for classic reggae fans and anyone with a passion for music documentary.