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ReelTalk Movie Reviews
From the Islands to the Island
by Donald Levit

After taking out thirty years for production, TV and magazine work, Menelik Shabazz returned to directing with The Story of Lover’s Rock. Underlined in December at the African Diaspora International Film Festival, the hundred-one minutes appears in the Maysles Institute’s onsite documentary Maysles Cinema ongoing Caribbean Diaspora series.

Alternatively called “romantic reggae,” lover’s rock is evolved from African rhythms and dance -- from an original forty-five degree crouch to straight up and down, observes an instructor -- and through and parallel to Jamaican reggae evolved from mento through ska, toasting, poppa-top, rock steady and rockers. But the phenomenon was pretty exclusively British, a reaction to conditions surrounding the first generation born in England to West Indian immigrants. (Barbadian by birth, Shabazz came there at six.)

Aside from a few black-and-white stills and a snip of archival material on the 1981 protest marches over cavalier investigation of a sixteen-year-old’s birthday death, the film is far from the director’s customary politically charged work. The era’s “sus” policies (stop and frisk “suspicious” non-whites) and Brixton troubles are not so much a concern as is the social ostracism of the ghettoized minority. Rather, this is a study of a music and its scene. It is nostalgic on a personal level, a “look back at the way we were in the seventies and eighties.”

Their London Caribbean accents sometimes unfathomable, speakers today recall that, because streets were unsafe, the police unhelpful and theater venues unthinkable, the clubs and, increasingly, roving house parties became “our whole life, we were intoxicated with it.” Some of these reminiscences are shot against simulated or recreated dancing couples, where the foreground speakers are comedy teams who are not funny.

Clips of performances back then, before almost exclusively black audiences, are free of over-professional gimmickry but too abbreviated to provide a true idea of the talents of the artists, some of whom are interviewed in the present. They and the music are unknown in the U.S., though DJs, producers and Dub-Vendor label entrepreneurs lay claim to a long-term, later international success for the genre -- singer Janet Kay relates her surprising recent success in Japan after no recording contracts back home -- and offer reasons behind its relative lack of Top of the Pops chartbusters.

These speakers are poorly identified, but that makes little difference, for despite their influence -- on, for instance, UB40, Culture Club, the Police -- their names are unfamiliar to the uninitiated. Among those that might resonate is Jamaican Sugar Minott, one of three performers (plus the director’s parents) to whom the film is dedicated but whose romantic crooning is less representative in that a majority of the artists were female. Not unreasonably, some of these female vocalists today talk of early feminism and of their tending in this direction as a reaction to male-dominated “roots” music.

Much of the talk, too, and clearly the fondest memories and chuckles, is of “scrubbing,” the close intimacy of “figure-eight” slow-dancing with  the opposite sex. All swear to the sense of identity and first maturity given them at the house parties, which continually changed location because no one was expected to make his home available week after week.

The context of coming of age as native-born Britons who happened to be of Island descent, is alluded to often enough to stick. But the documentary aims to be not so much historical as social, in the sense of both individual and group. Those unfamiliar with the sound and significance of lover’s rock, however, do not get enough of a feel for either here. It is not even clarified, for example, that the constantly referenced “sound systems” refers to Jamaica’s mobile discotheques as well as to actual amplifiers and mixing boards.

Long on people speaking and comedic reminiscence, The Story of Lover’s Rock is short on sustained complete performance-examples. Everything is too brief, so the viewer may have his appetite whetted but will need to go elsewhere to drink deeply.

(Released by ArtMattan; not rated by MPAA.)

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