Rockers (1977)

I don’t really like musicals. Quite frankly, I think they’re mad corny. Guys and dolls strolling down Broadway in their knickers with whitewashed smiles spontaneously bursting into song and dance? As a kid it felt a stretch even for my imagination. However, time has been kind and I find myself softening to the most Hollywood of genres. Admittedly, the musical is not such a departure from my understanding of music as being inseparable from life — breathing, speaking and walking. It’s just that in musicals we see the guy wooing the girl one moment, serenading her virtues in the next; music and life are clearly divided.

However, the frequent turn of motion pictures to musical theater speaks beyond precedent, but also to a surreal mental divorce of text from sound. Music still expresses an emotion, captures a thought, even reports an event, but it is used principally as a climax, an end. As soon as the number is over, the spotlight fades and we’re back to ‘normal.’ The spoken is equated with reality, the sung equated with fantasy. Particularly with regards to cinema, the division, while subject to the choice of the director, seems unnecessary. Music deals in sound and film deals in image, but they share a principle quality: motion. Both forms are as rooted in process as they are in product. Filmmakers from Chaplin to Wong have embraced this latter idea, but their peers are not numerous.

Which makes Rockers such a welcome work, even after its initial release 25 years ago. Written and directed by a first-time filmmaker, Ted Bafaloukos, the film is musical vérité, a vibrant, effortless capsule of a synthesis of music and life: musicians. The title refers to the subjects’ bread and butter, “Rockers” (the current reggae, the latest sound), and the film bulges at the seams with performances, parties and a soundtrack of the cream of Island Records’ Jamaican crop (Peter Tosh, Gregory Isaacs, Burning Spear, Inner Circle, et al.).

While songs fill the heart of Rockers, Bafaloukos keeps music rooted in daily life by shooting mostly in the streets of Kingston and the hills of Montego Bay. With a combination of handcams and static shots, medium and long shots, and relaxed editing, Rockers unreels like a day-in-the-life yarn. A loose Bicycle Thief meets Robin Hood narrative frames the film, but really the camera follows the lead of famed real-life drummer Leroy “Horsemouth” Wallace and a charismatic cast of Jamaica’s finest musicians, including Dirty Harry, Jack Ruby, Robbie Shakespeare, Jacob Miller, and nearly 50 others. While extrapolations regarding Babylon, Industrialism, Imperialism, the music industry, and polyamory can be made, Rockers primarily succeeds in showing music as a natural element in daily life.

On an immediate level, Bafaloukos provides whole performance clips to quickly connect first-time viewers and fans alike to the film. Even before introducing the main character, the title sequence focuses on the Abyssinians, Ras Michael and the Sons of Negus’ back-to-basics reading of “Satta Amasagana” as Higher Harris acts as the Chorus, introducing the themes of the film. Each subsequent song, from Kiddus I recording “Graduation in Zion” at Jack Ruby’s studio to Jacob Miller killing “Tenement Yard” in Babylon’s backyard, becomes an integral element in Horsemouth’s adventure; that the chapter selection is divided by song is a reflection of this frame.

However, Bafaloukos’ ability to weave these threads in a seamless, cinematic sense is what makes Rockers so exceptional. The first shot of Horsemouth is a three-minute handicam shot of him running ‘errands’, set to the sounds of a rehearsing Rockers All-Stars horn section, ultimately ending with a Blazing Saddles Count Basie twist. It’s music in and of the streets. Soundtrack and music from the film’s story constantly commingle, like when the selector puts on Junior Murvin’s “Police and Thieves” during the martial break-up of the party. Finally, in a beat down of musical delirium, music is presented as a natural expression, as when Horsemouth visits Burning Spear for a true healing session. Certainly, much of the film deals with struggle and hints at how greed, jealousy and selfishness tugs at each character, it still manages to present a living, breathing and walking vision of music; in a pop culture sense, Rockers is music I-tal.

The 25th Anniversary Edition of Rockers is welcome simply for its clean aural and visual qualities (I should note that my first viewing of both Rockers and its cousin The Harder They Come were on horribly distraught prints, so even a C-town VCD is an improvement by my standards). Presented in Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround and DTS, each song warms the speakers. The colors that splash numerous scenes, particularly the interiors of Channel One Studios and Horsemouth’s myriad outfits, positively vibrate. For this experience alone, the DVD is a worthy experience. There is a considerable amount of bonus material, including a visual and audio patois guide, original radio and film trailers, and biographies of many of the key players, but most insightful is the light-hearted interview with Bafaloukos. From his new home in Greece, he reminisces at an easy skanking pace similar to his dread brethren.

A brief commentary track is also included which provides nuggets on select scenes, such as the aforementioned Burning Spear scene being shot during the Clash of the 7s (7 July, 1977), a significant day of reckoning according to Rastafarianism. Rounded out by a light booklet with some rare images but little information, the overall effort could have been more thorough. That said, any screening opportunity should be embraced, as the film’s virtues alone justify it. And to any bull bucka, beast, or badman that thinks the contrary: “Remove ya ‘sef!”

RATING 9 / 10