Babylon - Franco Rosso's cult classic
Ask a few fans of Jamaican music about their favourite classic reggae film, and you’ll get a variety of responses.
Many will go for the original The Harder They Come (1972), with its shocking scenes of poverty and hugely popular soundtrack. Some will plump for Rockers (1978), a superb portrayal of ’70s roots reggae in its prime (although there is a telling lesson in how long it takes to make a film: by the time is was released, the music in the dancehalls had already moved on).
Yet a few -- particularly those in the UK who don’t swallow the official ‘everything produced outside Jamaica is substandard’ line, so often regurgitated by home-counties public schoolboys -- may name Franco Rosso’s Babylon (1980) as their choice. Rarely screened and unavailable on DVD unless you are willing to break the law, to call this motion picture ‘criminally underrated’ or ‘unjustly ignored’ would be an incredible understatement. So when the Barbican chose to show it as part of their Soul Britannia Festival on a heavily degraded print, tucked away at the back of the building in their tiny cinema 3, I didn’t think twice about getting a ticket.
Babylon is set in South London at the start of the ’80s, a time when reggae music was at its peak, along with a distinctively British brand of xenophobia and racism that saw American boxer Marvin Hagler pelted with bottles at Wembley after beating Alan ‘I’ll never lose to a black man’ Minter. The plot concerns Blue, lead chanter for Ital Lion Sound (played by Aswad singer and former Double Decker Brinsley Forde), in the run-up to a competition with a rival crew led by Jah Shaka (who appears as himself). Over the course of the film Blue socialises with his friends and clashes with his family, employer, and a local clan of racists, before going on a spiritual and physical journey through small hours London where he encounters a series of trials and temptations that set up the film’s violent climax.
Given its limited budget and ‘ad hoc style’ dialogue, Babylon’s pacing and plotting is impressively adroit and assured, with a surprisingly large number of dramatic themes crammed into just over 90 minutes without any sense of overloading. This film has everything, romance, violence, drama, tension, friendship, music, laughter. But it also tackles plenty of issues relevant today -- the relationship between ascetic religious principle and sound business expediency, conflict with the authorities, racism and homophobia, and of course, the unadulterated joy of the sound system at full blast.
Rosso offers us a spectrum of characters and their different ways of dealing with ‘Babylon’. There’s Beefy who attacks racism head on without compromise; Blue’s girlfriend’s brother, who turns to crime; Sound leader Spark, whose attitude is to keep a cool head and avoid unnecessary trouble; and there’s Blue himself, who embraces a militant Rasta path. We also observe the diverse ways white characters deal with the black presence in London, from the NF-supporting racists to the cynical police for whom bigotry is just another means of exercising power, and from Ronnie, whose love of music draws him perilously close to Blue and his friends, to the TV buying man who accepts them because business is business.
There are a few parallels between Babylon and another cult British movie from the year before: Franc Rodham’s "Quadrophenia", which offers a similar no-frills representation of male-dominated youth culture where hedonism collides with life’s larger issues. The group of white mods in Quadrophenia mirrors that of Babylon, with Ferdie the black drug dealer occupying a similarly peripheral place to Ronnie the ex-skinhead, who uses his friendship with Blue and his crew to score weed (Martin Stellman co-writer of Babylon was also the scriptwriter for Quadrophenia).
The stark images of grey South London, shot by Chris Menges, contrast sharply with the colourful Rockers, and the film could almost be a sequel or companion piece to its Jamaican predecessor. Critics have rightly praised the final scene at the sound clash for its power, but the penultimate scene with Ronnie (played by Karl ‘Flash Man’ Howman) has to be the most moving in its depiction of the way racism can only divide. Then there is the soundtrack, which features Vivian Jackson’s ‘Deliver Me From My Enemies’, I Roy on possibly his finest form on ‘Whap’N’Bap’N, Thank You For The Many Things You’ve Done by Cassandra’ (the tune that got this writer into lovers rock), and some unforgettable work by Aswad and Dennis Bovell. If you don’t know it, seriously, track it down.
Despite suffering from a unique lack of both supply and demand, the legacy of Babylon lives on, particularly in the films of Shane Meadows, which display a comparable love of improvised dialogue and jarring switches between humour and violence. Its influence has also touched a new generation of musicians - Samples from Babylon can be found on UK rapper Kalashnekov’s Sagas Of Kalashnekov album. A DVD release of this exceptional film remains as unlikely as ever, so when it next hits the big screen, don’t miss out…
Written by Angus Taylor
Related LinksBabylon feature on uncarved.org