Music and movies (Reggae)

In 1995 a group of young French film makers showed a side of Paris, a city known for culture & romance, that few tourists or cinema-goers had seen before. “La Haine” (The Hate) is about the lives of young working class youths living on the grim estates, the “banlieues”, on the periphery of the city. It is a cold eyed, beautifully filmed, life in a day of 3 friends in the aftermath of a riot. The opening credits set the tone.

Despite the disruption, even devastation, in your own neighbourhood there’s a sense of empowerment for a community involved in a riot. People who burn & loot act out of frustration, seeing themselves excluded from & discriminated against by those who make decisions which affect their lives. In 1981, even though I lived in the area, I had little involvement in the Brixton riots. I am white, I had a job, I could walk the streets at night without fear of police harassment, it was not my fight. The people I knew who were out on the streets felt that a point had been made.  The racist policies of the police would not stand, it was time to get up, stand up.

“La Haine” captures that time when choices are to be made. A youth with an attitude knows that getting hold of a gun changes his optionsHis friend, sick of violence met with violence, knows that it is time to speak his piece. It’s a gritty, grainy movie, as tough as it needs to be. Writer-director Mathieu Kassowitz captures the cultural & racial mix of modern France while we also got to see the talent of Vincent Cassell for the first time. In 2008 Cassell had his de Niro moment in the double header “Mesrine” movies. Those of us who had followed him since “La Haine” knew that he was one of the great cinema actors of his time. The dread, beat & blood of “Burning & Looting” establishes this uncompromising, militant & modern European movie.

In 1990 I had that riot of my own when a massive demonstration against the Poll Tax was, at first, badly supervised & then physically attacked. As we fought & won running battles with an outnumbered police force there was an exhilaration around Central London. I felt no desire to damage property or to steal from shops but I did want to assert my right to live in my own city on my own terms. The defeat of the police, violent defenders of an unpopular government tax, made the world look a little different when we walked through the middle of our city the next day. We did not know it at the time but our first female Prime Minister was taking her first steps as a dead woman walking that day.

Now your English skinhead movie is obviously not going to be as serious as the bloody French one. It sure isn’t “American History X” either. The opening montage of “This Is England”, a 2006 masterpiece by Shane Meadows, has plenty of social division, violence & war with enough footage of the recently deceased instigator of social disintegration & conqueror of the Falklands. There’s also Roland Rat, Space Invaders, Rubik’s Cube & a Royal Wedding. The shiny distracting baubles waved before us while those who create the wealth by their labour get shafted. I could spin you one about bread & circuses, about how nothing has changed in 30 years but I could put it no better than our Scorsese of the English provinces, “This Is England”.

So while “54-46 Was My Number” has Toots & the Maytals singing about life in prison it is not chanting down Babylon. It’s a dance yourself dizzy, skinhead boot stomp. Now your roots reggae hits the hips as well as the head but your Ska is more don’t think just dance. & that’s no criticism. British youth cults have always had their own dance music. The Ska revival of the early 1980s excavated & made its own great sounds. I can say little about “This Is England”, a film set in 1983 with a connection to such wonderful earlier British films as “Kes” &  “Scum” while still apposite to the personal & political in the 21st century. It has got to be seen.

Some time in 1970s Birmingham, in an off-Broad St fleapit (the Futurist ? Anyone ?), I saw Perry Henzell’s film “The Harder They Come”. Handsworth had come to the city centre. A packed audience, raised on Dirty Harry Callahan & Bruce Lee cheered Jimmy Cliff as rough, tough, survivin’ Ivan in a gritty, fresh vibrant snapshot of Island Life. Any chat about reggae in movies has to include this great film & a soundtrack LP in everyone’s Top 10 list. But…don’t watch that , watch this.

Director Ted Bafaloukos went to Jamaica to make a documentary about reggae culture. “Rockers” (1978) was given a thin Bicycle Thieves meets Robin Hood storyline & was released at the pictures as a drama. Studio One drummer “Horsemouth” Wallace starred in this cool, intimate portrait of life in JA, Gregory Isaacs, Big Youth, Robbie Shakespeare & others may not be the best actors but are great musicians.

This outstanding clip captures one of the island’s legends. Winston Rodney, known as Burning Spear, is one of reggae’s most spiritual artists, his connection to Africa in both his lyrics & his rhythms closer than most. Here he performs an acapella version of “Jah No Dead” a song from the “Social Living” LP, one of the outstanding run of records he released. To see the young Spear, to hear his sinuous passion. Well praise the divinity of your choice that someone was around to point  camera at this incredible performance. me, I’ll go with Jah because if Burning Spear believes that Jah lives then I’m not arguing. Nominated for best musical performance at the Academty Awards ? In our dreams.

Joe Strummer (21.9.1952-22.12.2002)

Ten years ago today Joe Strummer of the 101ers, the Clash and the Mescaleros died at the terribly early age of 50. Joe’s political punk poetry helped to make the Clash the most influential and the best British band of their time.

From the lyrics of “White Riot”…“All the power is the hands/ Of people rich enough to buy it/ While we walk the streets/ Too chicken to even try it/ And everybody does what they’re told to/ And everybody eats supermarket soul-food”…to the last great single “This Is England”, Joe communicated his sense of outrage and injustice. He was writing and singing what many people already thought and said but the band’s popularity meant that he reached a much wider audience than anyone. Joe and his band inspired and reflected the attitudes of a generation of British people which goes beyond the punk shibboleths but knows that “no man born with a living soul can be working for the clampdown”. The ironic antipathy of Banksy’s images in this clip serve the song well.

Joe’s work post-Clash is not as well known but is of a fine quality. “Trash City” was recorded with Latin Rockabilly War and still sounds pretty good. In 1999 he released his first record with the Mescaleros. Lyrically and musically the band reflected the multiculturalism of Britain in a way that I recognised the country he sang about. Caribbean, Asian, African, Eastern European and British, there are aspects of all these cultures that are now part of our everyday lives. Joe Strummer and the Mescaleros threw this all together and made a fine World Music noise with it. There are a lot of good songs to pick from, “Coma Girl”, “Johnny Appleseed”, “Bhindi Bhagee” and others. Well, it’s my shout and this is the stunning “Yalla Yalla”.

Joe Strummer could be contradictory, as can we all. He was a musical magpie just like we are. He is remembered for all the great music he produced and for always trying to cut through the bullshit, always trying to remember the morality involved in living your life as well as you can. Joe was no idealist, he was not our conscience. He was, as we all are, trying to live life well, to do the right thing. He is remembered today and he is missed always.

Why Not Go Nicely Before Things Get Really Dark (Shane Meadows)

Shane Meadows, the “Scorsese of the East Midlands”, has maybe made all the big-screen movies he will ever make. I hope this is not the case. It costs a lot of money to make a movie and despite the quality of his work it is hardly blockbuster material. He has continued a timeline established by Ken Loach (“Kes”, “Riff-Raff”) and Alan Clarke (“Scum”, “Rita, Sue and Bob Too”) by making entertaining films set in a recognisable England. The big money goes to Brit flicks about the foibles of former monarchs or the romantic comedies of posh London bastards. His “This Is England” saga will continue with “90” next year and he is working on a film about the Stone Roses. I will be watching them both.

“A Room For Romeo Brass” is so good, so funny and affecting that I missed “Match of the Day” to see it on TV. My brother, no indie film buff, asked me what I knew about Shane the next day…it’s that good.

We were on to Shane Meadows right from the start. His short films “Where’s The Money Ronnie ?” and “Small Time” were on late-night TV and we recorded them on no more than a hunch. A good call…here was a talent to be watched. His first cinema release “Twenty Four Seven” used Bob Hoskins and a cast of mostly unknown young actors to good effect. After Romeo Brass “Once Upon A Time In The Midlands” seemed a false step but subsequent viewings have not disappointed. Rhys Ifans, Shirley Henderson and Robert Carlyle are all good value. When Kathy Burke walks out of an argument saying “Sod this. I’m going to watch the Weakest Link !” it is a pure Meadows moment. Something I have heard said by real people in real families.

Next time up Meadows gave us the movie we all knew he could make.

If Shane is the English Scorsese then Paddy Considine is his De Niro. In Romeo Brass we saw his sociopathic variation on the theme of Johnny Boy.In the classic “Dead Man’s Shoes” he is an English Travis Bickle, an Avenging Angel knowing a real rain will come and wash all this scum off the streets. The streets of a grimy Midland council estate where the drug dealers crowd into a battered 2CV. Meadows’ naturalism works to make this revenge thriller as effective as “Get Carter”, as taut as Hitchcock. I love the cartoon ultra-violence of “Kill Bill” but that ain’t real and it is not meant to be.

“Dead Man’s Shoes” is a morality tale for a 21st century Britain in which I live. Paddy Considine is immense, the script is tight. It is the milieu, the pubs, the houses and the streets in which the film is set which anchors it in a reality. When I lived in London we would meet our friends from the cheeky Cockney East End. We called these our “Lock, Stock” nights. “Dead Man’s Shoes” was where we lived every day. A brilliant film which ranks with any made in Britain in the last 50 years.

For “This Is England” Shane looked back to 1983 and made another film about a young boy. Skinheads had been around in the UK since 1969, the Two-Tone  fashion of 1979 had revived the reggae/ska. boots and braces look but these youth fads do tend to have an extended sell-by-date in provincial Britain. The protagonist,12 year old Shaun, meets a gang who are not didactic skins having a flexible attitude to age and dress code. Missing his father, killed in the Falklands War, troubled at school, he is excited by their clothes, their humour and their acceptance. The scene where Shaun’s mother (Jo Hartley), worried about her son, goes to confront the leader Woody (Joseph Gilgun) and leaves assured that he will be OK is surprising, touching and human.

Of course this is Thatcher’s Britain with the spectre of unemployment and racism. The film has to get dark on us. The arrival of Combo (Stephen Graham), a veteran skin just out of jail, raises issues which threaten the solidarity of the friends. Shane Meadows deals with these issues more effectively and assuredly than purely making blunt political points and he is on the side of the good guys. The climactic scene was one very familiar to me. I have got high with idiots like this who want to be starting something. I could see it coming just as I had seen it in my life. I was impressed by the way Meadows had got the tone of the film so right.

“This Is England” has a great cast and a soundtrack to match. Shane’s subsequent films have been a bit cheap and cheerful with no budget. It is in the sequels to “This is England” where the quality is to be found. The film was not shown in our little town so we went to the nearest showing on its release. This was where some of the film was shot and the hometown of Thomas Turgoose, the young man who gives a terrific performance at the centre of the film. It seemed appropriate to be walking the same streets immediately after seeing such an English movie.