MADE IN JAMAICA
Directed and written
by Jerome Laperrousaz
Starring Elephant Man,
Bunny Wailer, Capleton
Earlier this year, Martin Scorsese announced that, having directed documentaries on Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones, he was going to turn his attention to reggae legend Bob Marley. The Marley family gave him its blessing, but the artist and director are still an odd fit - though no more strange a subject for Scorsese perhaps than Edith Wharton or the Dalai Lama. A more likely candidate to helm such a doc might be French filmmaker Jerome Laperrousaz, whose first feature, 1980's Third World: Prisoner in the Street, was a portrait of the titular reggae band. Third World appears again in Laperrousaz's latest, Made in Jamaica, an affectionate if largely unsatisfying exploration of the musical genre's evolution.
Laperrousaz's approach is unusual and, at first, compelling. He forgoes voice-over and archival footage, relying entirely on recent interviews and, most impressively, musical sequences performed live to camera. In such a fashion, the film profiles about 20 musicians, from dancehall legend Elephant Man to stalwarts like Bunny Wailer and Toots and the Maytals.
Reggae is often referred to as Jamaica's blues, and, fittingly, the film begins with the 2005 murder of one of its more popular proponents, a dancehall dancer named Bogle. From there, Laperrousaz paints a fairly comprehensive portrait of the reggae scene, with its roots in Jamaica's ghettos and seemingly as plagued by internecine warfare as American hip hop was in the 1990s. Chronology's not a priority - older figures such as Gregory Isaacs appear alongside younger bloods such as Bounty Killer - and the film proceeds alongside thematic lines rather than temporal ones. However, you can almost feel the filmmakers ticking off a checklist of talking points: violence, religion, colonialism, sexism.
But performances are the film's focus, and Laperrousaz is content to sit back and let the musicians do their stuff. How much you enjoy Made in Jamaica will depend entirely on how much you enjoy reggae. No devotee, I was good for about 45 minutes. (Fiercer, faster dancehall is more my taste; as Elephant Man describes it, "Reggae is the culture, but dancehall is like rock 'n' roll.") Nonetheless, Laperrousaz has remarkable access, and this pitches the film somewhere between Wim Wenders' Buena Vista Social Club and Michel Gondry's Block Party.
But unlike Gondry's film, Made in Jamaica lacks a Dave Chappelle to liven it up and guide you through the music. Curious gaps might mystify connoisseurs - none of the Marleys are interviewed, and there is no real discussion of the intersection of hip hop and Jamaican music (Elephant Man, for example, is on Diddy's record label) nor input from experts - sociologists, historians or critics.
Laperrousaz's own lack of analysis deprives the film of context and a needed point of view. His film is about flow, not flow charts, and if you can go with that, well, then everything will be all right.