For any or no reason, a number of good films fall through the cracks. Some receive their due belatedly, others not ever. Among the latter, miniscule-budget 1997 Dancehall Queen is therefore all the more appreciated as the close of the triptych MAD/Museum of Arts and Design “Jamaica Sound System.” The 35mm print not projected for twenty years follows Fridays of career- and reggae-making 1972 The Harder They Come and cult 1978 Rockers but does not embarrass itself in such famous funky company.
Advertised subtitles absent, the impenetrable creole/pidgin/patois takes time to grow somewhat less baffling to the ears, but co-screenwriter (and co-director with Rick Elgood) Don Letts’s seriocomic story is more or less visually followable. And neither really matters, for the blaring happy dancehall music more than makes up for gaps in aural dialogue comprehension, while DOP Louis Mulvey bedazzles in emphasizing garish color in wigs, scanty dance-queen costumes and close-up angled very suggestive acrobatic dancers gyrating their mid-regions fore and aft fit to relegate Miley Cyrus twerks to kindergarten ranks.
The poverty and scary violence of Kingston, Jamaica, shantytowns figures in, both in plot and visuals, but despite opening and closing knife deaths, shooting, a face-and-ear-biting killer, madness, mayhem just around the corner throughout, and underage sex sought, the tone is amazingly not dark at all but, like the music, celebratory, laughter-filled and bouncy, ”the heartbeat of the Caribbean.”
This is due to a few of the more minor characters and for the most part to toothy -- most everyone here is, in close-up -- and toothsome single mother Marcia Green (Audrey Reid). Their parents living off in the country, she and mentally delicate brother Junior (Mark Danvers) operate the wheeled One Stop street vending stand that does not bring in enough to support them and her two teen daughters. So she depends on help from gun-toting Hummingbird Club owner Larry (Carl Davis). When sixteen-year-old Tanya (Cherine Anderson) complains that “Uncle Larry” has again started to put the make on her, Marcia tries to keep things together and his assistance flowing until she can find a different source of cash.
Meanwhile, for supposed snitching friend Sonny (Donald Thompson) is killed in front of them by red-haired Priest (stage and screen actor and radio DJ commentator Paul Campbell), who threatens Junior about talking to the police -- “Walk and live, talk and bumbo claat [patois intensifying obscenity] dead”-- and tries to win Marcia’s affection and favors.
Hearing of a 200,000 Jamaican dollar prize (approximately US $1,500) for sexy performance at Larry’s fashionable dance club, in her habitual red bra and array of sideways baseball caps she goes to raffish shop Ouch to size up fancy street-queen clothing, which she will have copied on the cheap and will wear to practice in front of a bedroom mirror. Unrecognizable, and irresistible to Larry, she sashays in as the blue-wigged nose-chained Mystery Lady to challenge slinky sulky Olivine (Patrice Harrison) for top honors, trophy and prize money.
Conducted by real singers Beenie Man and Lady Saw playing themselves as DJ-MC-singers, the climatic faceoff is cinema-electric, intercut and heightened as it is with faux (perhaps parodic) ecstatic audience shots and the outside alley confrontation between “business”-related Larry and Priest.
Developing through, related to, ska, toasting, dub, rock steady, poppa top, rockers, reggae, roots, and influencing rap, dancehall was at one time all the rage. The joyful sensuality of the soundtrack and dancers is irresistible, the thin-ish characters are comic or villainous but winning, and the no-frills borderline crudity fits and intensifies the whole.
(Released by Island Jamaica Films; not rated by MPAA.)