Ted Bafakoulos’s Rockers is rightly regarded as the best of Jamaica’s classic reggae films: being more original than the derivative gangster tale The Harder They Come, and more heavyweight than the eccentric Countryman. It tells the fictionalised, subtitled, story of real life drummer Leroy Horsemouth Wallace, who has his bike stolen by the local mafia and enlists his friends – including Gregory Isaacs, Jacob Miller, Robbie Shakespeare and Leroy Smart – to exact an unusual brand of revenge.
Rockers ambles along at an easy pace, journeying from the city to the country and taking in various neighbourhood characters and places of historical reggae interest. Most of the cast are non-actors and they deliver their lines with a natural spunk and spontaneity. Of particular note are Horsey’s devout Christian grandmother (“You’re going the wrong way Leroy!”) and producer Joe (“I don’t give record - I sell record!”) Gibbs.
While Horsey is portrayed as an irrepressible and sympathetic personality, the film pulls no punches concerning the less than savoury aspects of his behaviour. His petulant response of “Why you have to be so selfish?” to his long suffering babymother Madgie when she won’t give him their children’s food money to buy a bike elicits incredulous laughter at his outrageous cheek. Once he has the cash he thinks nothing of pursuing the record company owner’s daughter Sunshine, before returning to Madgie’s bed at the movie’s end.
Less ambiguous are the depictions of American tourists who see the island as their pleasure ground. The couple who think reggae is “a new Calypso” and ask Isaacs to break into their car, and the scantily clad lady looking for a bit of Caribbean “rough” are a caustic comment on the iniquities of the tourism regime.
It goes without saying that the soundtrack works brilliantly with the film; even if Inner Circle’s happy-clappy theme tune is not their finest hour. By Rockers’ 1978 release, the style of roots featured was about to become passé; yet for many viewers outside Jamaica, the songs of the Heptones, Kiddus I and Junior Byles set to celluloid were a revelation. The iconic scene where Leroy and Dirty Harry “take-over” a funk club has been etched into the fantasies of reggae obsessives ever since.
The transfer to Blu-Ray results in a sharper picture although in HD on a really big screen some of the visuals look a little blocky. And for the home entertainment buff, the paucity of extras compared to the 25th anniversary DVD will be a disappointment. This previous release offered a director’s commentary, interviews with the director and producer, an original trailer, radio ads and a music video. Here only the Rasta Patois subtitles and glossary remain. None of this will be news to most reggae fans, however, for whom threadbare, basic reissues are an unfortunate but acceptable fact of life.
Whether Blu-ray will push aside DVD as decisively as DVD did for VHS remains to be seen. But if it does, this is one film you want in your collection for sure.
© Angus Taylor 20th August 2009