Set The Tape
Ending my sixth day of this year’s Festival on an inarguable high note was the world premiere of Rudeboy: The Story of Trojan Records, Pulse Films and director Nicolas Jack Davies’ documentary about the groundbreaking British record label that brought Ska and Reggae into the mainstream before folding out-of-the-blue in the mid-70s due to bankruptcy. In reality, this briskly-paced 95 minute documentary is three different stories in one, by necessity, for the story of Trojan Records is also the story of Ska, a genre grown out of Jamaican soundsystem culture trying capture the spirit of old American Jazz 45s from the 50s but with their own spin on it, and the story of Ska (plus its eventual evolution into Reggae) is the story of first-generation Jamaican immigrants moving to England once Jamaica received its sovereignty in 1962, bringing their culture with them and having to face the brunt of our country’s racism. Being degraded in the streets and in political office, having establishment radio refuse to play their music because it is “too violent,” but developing a kinship with White working class counterculture skinheads – “back when it was in fashion, not in fascism” as Don Letts differentiates – and eventually crossing over to the mainstream by “sugaring the pill” of their music in various ways (mainly pertaining to string sections).
All three stories are told extremely well. Davies pulls together interviews from the architects responsible for the music (or at least those who are still alive) and the record label executives who funded and cashed in on the movement to provide both sides of the story – tellingly, those making the music were all Black and speak about the culture and social consciousness behind the music, whilst those selling the music were mostly White and largely talk about it in terms of commerciality and “niche” markets – plus those who were influenced or positively affected by exposure to this radical Black music, like Pauline Black and Neville Staple. The legendary Bunny Lee talks about how “music is like water, it has no colour and anyone can enjoy it,” a quote which bookends the film and is illustrated by Desmond Dekker relating the Jamaica-specific backstory behind the descriptor “rudeboy” (along with the tragic aftermath of the debut of his song about rudeboys) and then cutting to a White English Ska fan relating the English-specific way that term translated over here. Music crossing boundaries but still being sincerely appreciated, just with different interpretations.
Somewhat ingeniously, Rudeboy rarely presents the talking head narration as straightforward talking head interviews. Instead, and perhaps as a cover for the relatively small pool of interviewees and available archive footage, Davies and cinematographer Jonas Mortensen stage vibe-based reconstructions of the events and moods talked about to back the interviews to. Nothing as trashy as a CBS Reality docudrama, thankfully, but more like a stylish music video, all hazy vibes and soft-focus and visual representations of a person or moment in time. The feel of the music and genre, running segments of songs acapella before cutting in to the full backing, always ensuring that the name and artist of the 45 currently playing on the soundtrack is given a prominent view… It really adds to the experience of the documentary without subtracting from it by going overboard with the visuals or the style. They’re here to supplement the story rather than tell it; the music and the interviews doing a great enough job on their own.
Rudeboy does short-change the collapse of the label in its story, mostly glossing over what lead to Trojan’s eventual closer, which perhaps was a deliberate choice to keep this a celebration of Black Jamaican and Black British culture rather than fixating on the failure. I respect that, but I only bring it up because the rest of the documentary is so comprehensive and insightful and entertaining that Rudeboy’s rush towards the end sticks out for its comparative thinness. The only real mistake this superb documentary makes at all. Otherwise, the film is excellent, a necessary insight into an underappreciated musical movement, and a loving tribute to a cornerstone of Black British culture.