LFF 2018: Rudeboy: The Story of Trojan Records Review
Some events just unavoidably collide and the 50 year celebration of Trojan Records arrives at the same time as the Windrush scandal (which is far from over) and during a period when multiculturalism is under a sustained attack from agenda driven groups. Rudeboy: The Story of Trojan Records heads back to the roots (no pun intended) of ska and reggae music to explain how it gave birth to a pioneering UK record label that helped bridge the gap between black and white communities in the 60s and 70s.
Director Nicholas Jack Davies takes a slightly different approach to telling the Trojan story, turning his documentary into something far more cinematic than the norm. His film also appears only a month after Idris Elba’s Yardie which set the sound system culture at the heart of its story, and the visual palettes used in Rubeboy’s dramatic scenes share a lot of similarities in terms tone and use of colour.
Running at only 85 minutes, Rudeboy starts its story in Jamaica and legendary producer Bunny Lee recalls the starting point of ska under the stewardship of Duke Reid in Kingston (Trojan Records took its name from his Trojan sound system). Windrush opened the way for over 100,000 people from the West Indies to arrive in the UK across the 50s and 60s in search of work, and in a grey, unwelcoming post-War Britain ska offered a sense of escape from the harsh realities of life in a country where the streets definitely weren’t paved with gold.
Enoch Powell’s ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech is briefly heard for added affect, although like much of the film lack of time lessens its impact. With the ska import record market booming under Asian Jamaican Lee Gopthal’s control he teamed up with Island Records - who were still building their UK base - and Trojan was born in 1968. Rudeboy then charts the rapid rise of the music on these isles, how working class white kids fell in with the music and the chart success that followed during a three year peak period.
In-between the dramatic recreations of past events involving various artists and producers, we hear many of them tell their own stories. This includes the likes of Lloyd Coxsone, Derrick Morgan, Roy Ellis and Marcia Griffiths, some of whom fondly remember their careers and the chance to perform to a sell out 10,000 crowd at Wembley. Neville Staples of The Specials recalls seeing Desmond Dekker perform his "Israelites" song on TV partially in shock at seeing a black man on British television and the inspiration it gave to him.
It should almost go without saying the music is the best thing about the film, although the format only allows for a brief ticking off of a handful of classics. That perhaps sums up the biggest problem with Rudeboy which attempts to cover a lot of ground but has limited space in which to do so. We hear, but never fully explore, discussions about the commercialism of ska, pirate radio, the late 70s British revival, how the music’s use of bass transformed modern music and Don Letts talks about how he and others initially struggled to find their identity as the first black British generation.
The telling of Trojan’s history suffers as a result and its sudden collapse in 1975 is barely given a mention. Dodgy finances were the cause but who, what and where are left unchallenged. The impact of ska and reggae culturally and sonically has been so profound it’s a subject that needs a full blown TV series to do it justice and Rudeboy mostly skims across the surface. That said, it acts as a good entry point into the music and its glossy aesthetic will hopefully attract a wide audience and win over some new converts in the process.
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