Like the music it celebrates, "Reggae Heartland" is a collection of highs, roughly etched out of the commonplace culture of Jamaica.
The 90-minute film, which opened yesterday at the Inner Circle, was shot in and around 1978's "One Love Peace Concert," organized by the late Bob Marley to stem the violence surrounding Jamaican elections that year. Marley, who performs a half-dozen of his most familiar songs (including "Trenchtown Rock," "Jah Live," "War" and "Natty Dread"), was very much the healing spirit in Jamaica's populist ranks: his concert was the first face-to-face meeting between then-Prime Minister Michael Manley and opposition leader Edward Seaga in the virulent campaign. Their emotional encounter would not be repeated until 1981 at Marley's state funeral.
"Reggae Heartland" is a poignant historical artifact: not only is Marley gone, but the film's other major figure, Jacob Miller, died three years ago. They are certainly the most charismatic and musically interesting personalities in the film. Marley's spiritual fervor and humanistic grace (his message of pride and social unity among oppressed peoples has virtually defined reggae appeal and concerns) and Miller's exuberant, gently rebellious energy offer a decided contrast to Peter Tosh's dour politicizing.
There are other performers as well but only Judy Mowatt, a one-time Marley back-up singer, makes any impact: her "Black Woman" is an early stab at establishing women's identity within the paternalistic reggae world. Preteen Junior Tucker's "Enjoy Yourself" is pseudo-Michael Jackson, right down to the fast footwork and sharp posturing. Most of the music, though, is honest, un-Americanized reggae, rhythmically and emotionally compelling and determined to develop in its own time.
"Heartland" seems to have been shot in three locations and edited in a half-dozen more. Marley's segments came from the "Peace Concert," Tosh's from someplace else and most of the rest from a small outdoor concert at an undisclosed location. Understandably, the sound is wildly uneven, particularly on the instrumentals. The vocals, however, are generally clear, though the uninitiated will have trouble with some of the thick Jamaican accents. The cinematography and editing are perhaps a bit rougher, at times herky, or jerky.
There is a rough script by Canadian director Jim Lewis, an even rougher attempt at defining the Rastafarian experience. This task is handled by Ras Lee Morris, whose voice-overs let the rhythms rest . . . briefly. For transitions between the various cincert sites, Lewis had opted for some strange devices, the most peculiar a seemingly wasted Everyrastaman perpetually stretched out before a portable radio punching out music that then becomes live. Strange.
For all its rough edges, "Reggae Heartland" is a charming period piece, not as vivid as "Rockers" or even "The Harder They Come," but eloquent testimony nonetheless to the creative powers of Bob Marley and Jacob Miller.