Category Archives: Movie reviews

The fascinating story of Stones Throw Records

Our-Vinyl-Weighs-A-Ton-1For a few years I have been a regular reader of U.S. music magazine Wax Poetics. But when I started to read this excellent publication I didn’t know half of the hip artists they wrote about. After watching the fascinating documentary Our Vinyl Weighs a Ton, about California-based underground label Stones Throw, I realized that several of the artists that I have been reading about – like Madlib, Dam-Funk, Mayer Hawthorne and the late J Dilla – were all based around the same label. You guessed it – Stones Throw Records.

The story about this independent label is an inspiring one and starts in 1996 when it’s founded by Chris Manak aka Peanut Butter Wolf. For about ten years it was largely a hip-hop label, but from around 2006 they went into a new direction and started to put out a plethora of genres, including rock, punk, soul and funk. Soul singer Aloe Blacc’s acclaimed Good Things, with its infectious single I Need a Dollar, is the best-selling album yet.

But selling records is not Peanut Butter Wolf’s primary focus. He goes beyond music and releases what he likes rather than what actually sells. Being commercial and successful comes second. Music and creativity come first. And that’s an honourable and admirable approach.

With lots of highly successful albums – of which several are hip-hop – Stones Throw has grown into an independent empire, much like punk label Epitaph. Today Peanut Butter Wolf does almost the same thing he did in 1996, but in a wider scale and in an industry that is completely transformed thanks to Internet and file sharing.

Our Vinyl Weighs a Ton is a moving and impressive story about a pioneer that has overcome several challenges – both personal and commercial. He has been fighting the unpredictable music industry and has also managed to make change over these 18 years.

Being anti-establishment and against the grain spark change and originality. That’s a fact after being overwhelmed by his story and energy. Unfortunately – for us reggae-heads – there is nothing on Stones Throw’s recent venture into reggae territory via excellent releases from Tom Chasteen’s Dub Club.

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An intimate portrait of Lee Perry

In the early 70’s producer, sonic wizard and singer Lee ”Scratch” Perry declared his will to build his own studio, a place open for everyone, especially dreads and rastas. In 1973 his studio Black Ark opened its doors. Seven years later it was burnt down by Lee Perry himself and looted.

In the documentary The Upsetter: The Life & Music of Lee “Scratch” Perry he says the studio had been polluted, corrupted and biased by dreads and rastas, and pinpoints The Congos, an outfit he calls “demons”.

After it had burnt down Lee Perry declared he was born again.

The Upsetter is directed and produced by independent filmmakers Ethan Higbee and Adam Bhala Lough and narrated by Academy Award-winning actor Benicio Del Toro. Lee Perry’s story is told through an exclusive in-depth interview filmed in Switzerland in 2006. He took refuge in Switzerland to confront his demons, and several of these are addressed in The Upsetter.

It has taken seven years to finalize and includes classic Lee Perry produced music and archival footage selected from throughout his extensive career. These video footage gems – both professional and homemade sequences – as well as extraordinary photographs taken from the vaults of music history span nearly five decades and paints an intimate and private picture of Lee Perry’s past, present and future.

The story about Lee Perry has been widely told before – in books, in previous documentaries and in liner notes to CD’s and LP’s. But The Upsetter is nonetheless an insightful look into the elusive personality and creative genius of one of the most legendary and pioneering music figures of all time. He’s usually credited for discovering Bob Marley, one of the first to use samples and one of the masterminds behind dub and remixing techniques.

For Lee Perry nothing was off limits or too bold, and he has worked with Paul McCartney, The Beastie Boys and The Clash. With the latter he had a relationship described as “The Clash looked at me like the children of Israel looked at Moses”.

The Upsetter is a captivating and fascinating journey. But it’s also a tragic story about a man that feels betrayed and robbed by everyone around him.

Lee Perry has often been portrayed as a mad man, and this documentary doesn’t change that image. He talks nonsense and sometimes seems to belong with Gabriel Byrne in the TV-series In Treatment. But according to Lee Perry himself he plays mad to avoid people.

Whether it’s just a front or not is hard to know, but The Upsetter is definitely one of the most disclosing reggae documentaries ever.

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Leonard Howell was the first Rasta

Reggae music is for many people synonymous with the teachings of Rastafari and Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie, crowned Ras Tafari in November 1930. If you dig a little deeper in this philosophy you’ll find Jamaican Marcus Garvey (1887-1940), an important figure in the U.S. Civil Rights Movement as well as for the ideas behind Rastafari.

French film maker and director Hélène Lee has however dug way deep in the Rasta movement and made a documentary about a well-travelled Jamaican preacher called Leonard Percival Howell (1898-1981), contemporary with Marcus Garvey and perhaps the most important figure behind the creation and rise of the Rasta movement in Jamaica.

The First Rasta follows in the footsteps in Leonard Howell and contains interviews with his family, academics, co-workers, musicians, politicians and ordinary people.

In his late teen Leonard Howell boards a boat in Jamaica and travels the world. Upon his return to his home island after almost 20 years he has lots of ideas and criticizes the western way of living. He is regarded by the authorities as a revolutionary and refuses to pay taxes to King George VI of the United Kingdom and is in 1933 arrested for treason and blasphemy.

He’s jailed, ridiculed and treated as insane, but manages to establish the first Rasta community in 1939. In Pinnacle, as the community is called, the first ideas concerning Rasta are formulated.

Pinnacle is isolated from the rest of society and frowned upon by the authorities. The camp is raided several times before it is finally shut down in 1959. The Rasta followers start to spread all over Jamaica and many settles down in the Kingston ghetto areas, and contrary to what the authorities wanted the movement starts to gain followers, where some of the most well-known ones are Burning Spear and Bob Marley.

This is a well-researched documentary that goes beyond the mere obvious – marijuana, reggae and dreadlocks. Hélène Lee manages to present a movement and a complex person with inspiration ranging from spirituality and black awareness to communism.

Even though the Rasta’s lives were made difficult in the early years, the movement and the ideas behind Rastafari have spread all over the world, and have had a strong and positive impact on many people lives. And all of this thanks to a man regarded as a threat to society.

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A thorough testimonial of the Marley legend

Ask the man in the street to name a reggae musician and he will answer Bob Marley. Ask the next man to name a reggae tune and he’ll probably give you Redemption Song, Could You Be Loved or No Woman, No Cry.

Bob Marley IS reggae music. No doubt about it.

His appeal 31 years after his death from melanoma at age 36 remains incredibly powerful. And this is despite his relatively short career in the global limelight, spanning from the Island debut album Catch a Fire in 1973 to his untimely death in May 1981.

Marley is the latest documentary about the man and his music. It has taken almost four years in the making and is meant to be the definitive story of the singer, and was created in cooperation with the family.

Super director and producer Martin Scorsese was originally attached to the project in 2008, but dropped out due to scheduling conflicts. The film was finally completed under the direction of Oscar and BAFTA winner Kevin Macdonald, of The Last King of Scotland fame.

It contains interviews with Bob Marley himself as well as his friends and family, including Ziggy Marley, Neville Garrick and Lloyd “Bread” McDonald of the Wailing Souls. It also includes concert footage and unique photo material courtesy of the Marley family.

The story of Bob Marley has been told many, many times before in both books and motion pictures and those hoping Marley will add new and never been told fascinating details will probably be disappointed.

But Marley is however the best documentary of the singer yet, since it digs deep during its more than two hours worth of running time. It’s a truly fascinating story of a son rejected by his father determined to be a musician. A story of a generous, unfaithful and focused human being who found a father figure in Haile Selassie and became an activist and a role model to people in Asia, in Europe, in the Caribbean, in the U.S., in Australia, in the Middle East and in Africa.

I’m not sure there will be another artist of the Bob Marley caliber ever again. An artist whose music speaks all people irrespective of class, gender or race.

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Lovers rock is about looking for love and losing love

Even though a romantic and soft side of reggae has been heard ever since the late 60’s with artists such as Delroy Wilson, John Holt and Ken Boothe, it wasn’t until the mid to late 70’s it became a genre in its own right.

Lovers rock heralds from the UK and evolved as an alternative to the political and militant roots music dominating the 70’s. Lovers rock is not particularly well-suited for riots or uprisings, but rather for late night dances and intimate moments between silky sheets.

Songs like Janet Kay’s Silly Games, Louisa Mark’s cover of Bobby Parker’s Caught You in a Lie or Brown Sugar’s I’m in Love With a Dreadlocks helped to make the genre popular and are today regarded as classics.

Menelik Shabazz’s documentary The Story of Lover’s Rock tells the story of a hostile environment characterized by discrimination. It’s a story about escaping the harsh reality and the search for identity in a divided British society marked by racism. But also about thirsting for love and losing love.

Maxi Priest, Janet Kay, Kofi, the late Jean Adebambo, Winsome and Tippa Irie are just a small portion of artists interviewed. And they are telling stories of where the genre came from, the people behind it and what it has meant to generations of musicians and listeners. They also cover other aspects, such as its future, how it gave women a voice and how it has travelled from the UK to Japan and Brazil.

The many stories are also told through dance moves and music and vivid comedy performances.

Menelik Shabazz has made a thorough exercise in music history. It’s obvious that he has great love of the music and its culture, which might have contributed to making the film unfocused at times. There are too many subjects, too many stories to be told.

But as a lover of music in general and reggae music in particular, you can’t but sit down, relax and enjoy the tale of one of Britain’s finest export products.

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Man Free explores the Jamaican mentality

There are few countries in the world, known throughout all hemispheres, with only three million residents.

Jamaica is one such country. The global knowledge of this tiny island is mainly due to extraordinary achievements in sports and music, with dominant figures being Bob Marley and Usain Bolt. But Jamaica is also known for drugs, political corruption and crime.

But what drives the men and women behind the media light and headlines? And is there a particular Jamaican mentality? These are two questions U.S. director and writer Kinsey Beck is trying to answer in his documentary Man Free.

Meet a former taxi driver, a young female entrepreneur running her own bakery and two brothers making their living as artists as well as a man struggling with cocaine addiction wishing he had more power to fight it. Legendary Jamaican film maker and director Perry Henzell is also featured throughout setting a narrative to the story.

Man Free paints a picture of the ordinary Jamaican struggling to make his and hers day to day living. It’s picture full of ambitions and industriousness as well as hospitality and caring.

It’s an interesting glance into everyday life and its challenges and opportunities. But Man Free would have gained from having a harder angle, for instance by diving deeper into the life of one or two people.

The title is a Jamaican expression for somebody that does something you don’t particularly approve of, and the Jamaican just say “man free”. This expression sums it up pretty well – to get somewhere, you can’t always ask for permission, you have to take the chances you get, whether some people like it or not.

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A welcome return of the rub-a-dub style

Soundsystems are the  foundation of reggae music. It begun in the 50’s and grew throughout the 60’s and 70’s.

And in the late part of the 70’s a new musical style took form, and it emerged from the Jamaican soundsystem dances. It was labeled rub-a-dub or just dancehall with producers, singers and deejays such as Henry “Junjo” Lawes, Barrington Levy and Yellowman.

The importance of soundsystems and the rub-a-dub culture is now explored in the 60 minute music documentary Return of the Rub-A-Dub Style directed by Steve Hanft and produced by Tom Chasteen. The former was responsible for Beck’s internationally recognized music video Loser, while the latter has been a DJ and musician for 20 years, and now runs the Dub Club in Los Angeles, where the live material in the documentary was filmed.

It features interviews and blazing live footage of both well-known Jamaican artists as well as more unknown U.S. peers. Among the Jamaican legends included are Brigadier Jerry, Welton Irie, Ranking Joe, Scientist, Tristan Palma and the late Sugar Minott.

The crew behind the documentary has found several originators from 70’s, and this is a great way to hear their story and catch them live in action.

It comes as a two disc digipak – one with the documentary and one with 17 fresh rub-a-dub tracks, where singers and deejays such as Lone Ranger, Prince Jazzbo and Jimmy Riley showcase their talents.

The album is produced by Tom Chasteen and Anthony Campbell and was recorded in Los Angeles and Kingston. It’s heavy, vivacious and organic in a foundation style with bass, guitar, drums, percussion and keys. The skanking is immediate and inescapable, and the album itself would actually be a worthwhile investment.

If you have read a reggae book or two this documentary will probably not provide you with any fresh news or unheard of information. But, seeing these legends live and telling their story is amazing.

File this one right next to your copy of UK soundsystem documentary Musically Mad.

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