Machel Montano is the undisputed King of Soca, a compelling and gifted musician who can integrate melody, lyrics and rhythm into a buoyant, infectious whole. If Bazodee doesn’t make you want to dance, you should never dance again.
Beyond that: No, this isn’t a complaint about cultural appropriation; let’s put that conversation aside for five minutes (only because I, personally, need a rest, not because it’s not worth considering). This love story set in Trinidad stars Montano, a Trinidadian musician, and was written by a Bajan woman. Its Caribbean roots are genuine. So, to rest its failings on a white American director (Todd Kessler) and its British stars isn’t quite the whole story.
Montano plays Lee de Leon, a construction worker who has abandoned music (his true passion) but still occasionally strums his ukulele at the airport, which is where he meets Anita (Natalie Perera). She’s the daughter of a land developer picking up her English fiancé and his family, here to meet her relatives and her little island. She tells him she’s always loved the song he’s singing, he tells her that he wrote it, they’re both surprised that they have anything in common. Later that day, he ends up performing at her engagement party and the errant sparks begin to burn.
There’s so much potential here: At the party, Lee performs a soca song with Hindi lyrics and it is an irresistible, uniquely West Indian mashup, as it was in 2013, when it was originally released by Montano and chutney singer Drupatee.
But the film never weaves together its various strands as tightly as the soundtrack does, and it’s unlikely that those unfamiliar with the cultures of the Caribbean will understand where everyone is coming from. Which is that the island, and by extent the region, has deep racial fissures carried since colonial times, when former African slaves were displaced by Indian and Chinese indentured workers, all pitted against each other so that no combined rebellion could upend the British.
When Anita leaves her fiancé for Lee, it’s not just that she’s been cheating on the wealthy son of her father’s colleague that disgusts everyone, but that she’s done so with a black man. That fact doesn’t hit with the emotional resonance it should. And although the movie is 20 minutes too long, we don’t learn much of Lee’s side of the story. He is the only black character with a name; we never hear what his own family thinks of his decision to love beyond the colour line.
Again, we’re not talking appropriation or authenticity, though I did long for more genuine Trini accents. The essential issue is audience: If this movie was made for West Indians, it needs more realness; if it’s for outsiders, it needs more explanation. The mushy middle is disappointing and confused. Montano’s music, as always, evokes bazodee – the silly, happy feeling of being in love – but the rest of it looked better from across the dance floor.Report Typo/Error