Thursday, November 15, 2018

Duff Review: "Rudeboy: The Trojan Records Story" Documentary

(Review by Steve Shafer)

Pitched somewhere between a hagiography of sorts and earnest truth-seeking documentary, "Rudeboy: The Story of Trojan Records," directed by Nicolas Jack Davies, had its US premiere last night at the DOC NYC Festival at a nearly sold-out screening at the SVA Theatre in Chelsea. Commissioned by BMG (which currently owns the Trojan catalogue) in celebration of Trojan's 50th anniversary this year, this 85-minute film employs a mix of short, talking head interviews with a number of often charming key players and commentators (Roy Ellis, Lee Perry, Derrick Morgan, Pauline Black, Don Letts, Ken Boothe, Toots Hibbert, George Dekker, Marcia Griffiths, Bunny Lee, King Edwards, Freddie Notes, Dandy Livingstone, Lloyd Coxsone, Neville Staple, and Dave Barker); archival footage of Jamaica, London, and TV/concert appearances by some of the featured artists; and truly artful recreations of past events with actors portraying various protagonists in this story, such as the late Trojan co-owner Lee Gopthal, Jamaican producer and Trojan sound system owner Duke Reid, and younger versions of Dandy Livingstone, Derrick Morgan, Bunny Lee, and more (they aren't given any lines and are usually shown in fairly ordinary situations in offices, studios, or dances, but nonetheless provide compelling visuals to accompany the audio of some of the interviews or samples of essential Trojan releases).

In sum, they provide a very cursory, but completely appealing outline of the label's history from its founding until it went under in 1975 (the origins and history of ska and its evolution to rocksteady and early reggae receive short shrift, too). Newcomers to Trojan will be intrigued and enlightened by what they learn, but anyone with a deeper knowledge of the label and its affiliated artists will be left wanting more (there's enough to cover here for a doc mini-series). Notably absent from the film is Trojan co-founder Chris Blackwell (after the viewing and brief Q&A with the audience, I asked director Davies about this as we were being ushered out of the theater and he told me that he very much wanted to include Blackwell, but was prevented from doing so, as Blackwell was contractually committed to telling his story for another project; Trojan label director and manager David Betteridge and Rob Bell stand in for him in the film) and with so many stellar artists released on Trojan over the years, one had the nagging feeling that far too many voices were left out (no doubt due to availability, budget and time constraints, and--most tragically--the deaths of many musicians).

At the heart of this film is the story of how a commercial enterprise (the joining of Chris Blackwell's and Lee Gopthal's similar ventures licensing reggae singles from Jamaican producers for release in the UK) unintentionally ended up influencing a generation (or two or three) of youth in the UK and beyond. And the film is most successful at conveying Trojan's enormous cultural and societal impact, as well as showcasing some of the label's finest music (which, of course, is released on the accompanying soundtrack album, full of superlative early reggae/skinhead reggae; a good reminder of how much extraordinary music came from this poor and tiny island nation).

Trojan's string of UK top ten charting pop hits in the late '60s and early '70s (including The Upsetters' "Return of Django," Harry J All Stars' "Liquidator," Boris Gardiner's "Elizabethan Reggae," Dave & Ansell Collins' "Double Barrel" and "Monkey Spanner," Desmond Dekker's "Israelites" and "It Mek," The Pioneers' "Long Shot (Kick De Bucket)," Bob and Marcia's "Young, Gifted, and Black" and "Pied Piper," the Melodians' "Sweet Sensation," and Nicky Thomas' "Love of the Common People") and success with its budget line of Tighten Up compilation albums was a result of skinhead reggae's massive popularity among both black and white youth. The sons and daughters of the Windrush generation (in the '50s and early '60s, over 100,000 Jamaicans emigrated to England after WWII after they were invited to help rebuild the nation and its economy) who largely felt alienated in Britain's overly racist society (there's a scene in the film where soundman Lloyd Coxsone recounts looking for employment at a government job center and finding that every listing was marked with a NCP, an acronym for "No Colored People") found that they shared a deep and common love for reggae with their white working class peers, which enabled all sorts of social connections to be formed (and making that generation of white Britons a bit less racist than the previous). Indeed, as reggae/punk DJ, filmmaker, and musician Don Letts reminds the viewer, the white skinheads of the late '60s/early '70s were, "the fashion kind, not the fascist kind," who were emulating the look of the black working class reggae fans and musicians. As well (as both Pauline Black and Neville Staple note), Trojan's artists and releases helped young, first-generation black Britons find validation and a sense of cultural belonging through the widespread embrace of reggae music and the representation of black British and Jamaican artists on the radio (even if it was usually pirate radio!), TV, and in the press.

The film glosses over the demise of Trojan, which was the result of many factors, including the transition to roots and dub in Jamaica (depriving the label of skinhead reggae to license), the business split between Gopthal and Blackwell (who went on to directly sign reggae musicians like Bob Marley and the Wailers, Toots and the Maytals, and Burning Spear to Island--and figured out how to successfully shape their sound for and market them to a white, rock audience), and the accumulated expenses from re-mixing, re-mastering, and adding pop strings to many later releases that never made it big. Also unmentioned was the common, but ugly and exploitive music business practice in Jamaica at that time--the music producer controlled the copyright/owned the recording. So, the producers of the licensed Trojan hits were paid all of the royalties due, little of which was ever shared with the artists themselves.

All criticisms aside, "Rudeboy: The Story of Trojan Records" really is a great (and fantastic looking/sounding) introduction to the legendary label and all of its stellar music--and longtime ska and reggae fans will enjoy watching it. But anyone seeking a much more detailed and comprehensive history of the label and its magnificent roster of artists will find it in Laurence Cane-Honeysett's newly released (also to mark the label's 50th anniversary) and absolutely essential "The Story of Trojan Records."

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