10 great reggae films

Celebrating 50 years of the film that helped spread the word about reggae to a global audience: the Jimmy Cliff classic The Harder They Come.

The Harder They Come (1972)New World Pictures

Although perhaps under-explored by critics and commentators, connections between reggae music and cinema were established early on. It was, after all, the soundtrack to Perry Henzell’s Jimmy Cliff-starring 1972 crime drama The Harder They Come that first helped to further spread the word about the music internationally (especially in the US), raising its global profile and turning many new fans on to the scene. 

Since then, reggae, in all its varied strands and subgenres (including precursors ska and rocksteady, and subsequent offshoots such as dub, roots, dancehall, lovers rock and ragga) has provided a rich source of material for films made in Jamaica and beyond. These include both documentaries exploring particular studios, labels, trends or the lives and work of icons of the genre, and fiction features, which have employed the music as an important plot, atmospheric or narrative element, often tapping into its radical roots in the process. 

This year sees two significant anniversaries in Jamaica’s history. It’s 60 years since the island’s gaining of independence from Britain, and 50 years since that ground-trembling release of The Harder They Come, the first Jamaican feature film. And so, as Henzell’s film returns to cinemas and a Reggae on Film season gets under way at BFI Southbank, here are 10 reggae movies to get you fired up.

The Harder They Come is back in cinemas from 5 August. 

From Jamaica to the World: Reggae on Film runs at BFI Southbank in August.

Reggae (1971)

Director: Horace Ové

Reggae (1971)

Directed by Horace Ové, this hour-long documentary record of the 1970 Caribbean Music Festival at Wembley is hard to see these days, but it deserves a place in the canon of classic concert films. Dynamically edited by Franco Rosso (the future director of the 1980 classic Babylon), the film interweaves on-stage footage of the Maytals, the Pyramids, Desmond Dekker, John Holt, the Pioneers and others with interviews from the likes of DJ Mike Raven, who discuss the history of the genre and its influences, as well as fans’ reflections on what the music means to them. 

As such, alongside some brilliant performances – including Millie Small’s response to politicians’ racist rhetoric in ‘Enoch Power’ and Bob and Marcia’s closing cover of ‘To Be Young, Gifted and Black’ – Ové’s film examines and contextualises reggae’s rebel spirit, commercial prospects and impact on Britain, capturing its moment with skill.

The Harder They Come (1972)

Director: Perry Henzell

The Harder They Come (1972)

Released 10 years after Jamaican independence, the film that, according to some accounts, ‘brought reggae to the world’ is Perry Henzell’s landmark crime drama. The great Jimmy Cliff plays country boy Ivan, a protagonist based on the much-mythologised real life Jamaican outlaw Vincent ‘Ivanhoe’ Martin, who arrives in Kingston with musical ambitions and falls into criminality. Shot on location, The Harder They Come offered reggae fans outside of Jamaica the chance to experience the music in its own environment and cultural context. The film was also a huge success in its home country where, as Henzell remarked, “Black people seeing themselves on the screen for the first time created an unbelievable audience reaction.” 

The Harder They Come remains a thrill today, not least for its compelling crime elements and its sharp-eyed take on the realities of the Jamaican music scene. That’s not to mention its thrilling integration of songs by Cliff and other artists, from ‘You Can Get It if You Really Want’ to ‘Many Rivers to Cross’ and, of course, the heart-lifting title track, first featured in full here in a superb studio recording scene.

Rockers (1978)

Director: Ted Bafaloukos

Rockers (1978)

“Greetings and love to one and all.” Originally conceived as a documentary about the late 70s scene, Theodoros Bafaloukos’s wonderfully loose, quirky and free-wheeling film gradually morphed into a more singular, hybridised entity combining real-life figures with fictional elements in a tale of oppressed musicians getting one over on their exploiters. 

Taking its title from the style of reggae that grew out of dub icon Augustus Pablo and his brother Garth Swaby’s record label, this cool and joyous journey ended up cheekily evoking Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves (1948), with a dash of Robin Hood on the side. Leroy ‘Horsemouth’ Wallace, then one of Jamaica’s most celebrated drummers, moves through the Kingston ghetto and music industry in search of his stolen motorbike, bought as part of his record distribution business. As he encounters a host of luminaries along the way, among them Jacob Miller, Gregory Isaacs, Burning Spear and Big Youth, Rockers offers an indelible portrait of Jamaican culture and the reggae scene at its peak.

Babylon (1980)

Director: Franco Rosso

Babylon (1980)

Co-written with Quadrophenia scribe Martin Stellman, Franco Rosso’s intense Cannes-premiered drama bristles with authenticity, aided by Chris Menges’ captivating dreamy-gritty photography of the south London and West End locations. At the centre is a vivid portrait of London’s sound system culture: the film follows young DJ Blue (Brinsley Forde of Aswad), a car mechanic by day and a rising reggae star by night, as he attempts to pursue his musical aims against a backdrop of family tensions and the racism of the wider society. 

That the film touched some extremely raw nerves politically is obvious: it was stamped with an ‘X’ rating in the UK, and deemed too controversial and “likely to incite racial tension” to screen at the New York Film Festival. Over 40 years on, Rosso’s film still cuts deep and hits hard, and the music – whether tracks played on screen or Dennis Bovell’s pulsing score – drives the plot and characters, right up to the bracing, defiant finale.

Burning an Illusion (1981)

Director: Menelik Shabazz

Burning an Illusion (1981)

Another fiction feature emerging from the charged early 80s London context, but one refreshingly centring female characters (who are marginalised in Babylon), Menelik Shabazz’s film is justly celebrated as the first British feature with a Black female protagonist (an award-winning performance from Cassie McFarlane as Pat Williams). Less recognised, though, has been the film’s dynamic use of reggae on its soundtrack – not only as part of its atmospheric evocation of Black London, but also as an important storytelling tool. 

From the opening pan across a beauty salon, scored to Judy Mowatt’s’s sublime ‘Slave Queen’, through the appearance of lovers-rock star Janet Kay in a club scene performing ‘Imagine That’, to the final Ras Angels and Ras Messengers-featuring group singalong to ‘Militant Works’, Shabazz brilliantly uses the music in the service of the female-focused narrative, to reflect and comment upon the protagonist’s journey from innocence to experience. 

Stepping Razor: Red X (1992)

Director: Nicholas Campbell

Stepping Razor: Red X (1992)

“I’m like a steppin’ razor/Don’t you watch my size/I’m dangerous,” cautioned Peter Tosh on his great cover of Joe Higgs’ 1967 song. Nicholas Campbell’s documentary about Tosh – original Wailer and one of the most subversive and outspoken of reggae artists – takes the first part of its title from that track, and the second from the so-called ‘Red X’ tapes: a series of autobiographical recordings that Tosh was making at the time of his murder in 1987 and which he’d intended to form the basis of a biography. 

Interlacing those audio sources with archive footage of Tosh’s performances, interviews with his family and friends, impressionistic dramatised recreations of the circumstances of his death, and attention to wider social contexts, Campbell constructs a distinctive portrait of the artist that illuminates Tosh’s background, spirituality and musical output. The result is a documentary that’s particularly valuable in its highlighting of Tosh’s challenges to the corruption and power imbalances of what he called “the shitstem”.

Dancehall Queen (1997)

Directors: Rick Elgood and Don Letts

Dancehall Queen (1997)

In Rick Elgood and Don Letts’ exceedingly broad but likeable and spirited film, Audrey Reid stars as Marcia Green, a street vendor and single mother whose unexpected transformation into ‘The Mystery Lady’ for a Kingston Dancehall Queen contest proves a way of facing her multiple life challenges and pitting her adversaries against one another. 

Full of energy and sass, and not shying away from some darker elements, Dancehall Queen boasts a committed performance from Reid (in her screen debut). She’s matched by the vibrancy and freshness of the film’s diverse soundtrack, performed by a gallery of stars, including Beenie Man and Bounty Killer. For extra joy, screen Dancehall Queen alongside Julian Henriques’s complementary Babymother (1998), about a single mum on London’s dancehall scene, and Rebel Dread (2020), William E. Badgley’s fine documentary about Letts. 

Bob Marley: The Making of a Legend (2011) 

Director: Esther Anderson and Gian Godoy

Bob Marley: The Making of a Legend (2011)

While the early 2010s saw the release of several Bob Marley-focused docs, the one that was chosen by the majority of international film festivals to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the iconic artist’s death was Bob Marley: The Making of a Legend. It’s not hard to see why, since part of what’s special about Esther Anderson and Gian Godoy’s film is its unique perspective: it draws extensively on photos and footage that Anderson, Marley’s former partner, shot in the early 1970s, some of which was thought lost for more than 30 years. 

The result offers some fascinating insights into the young Marley and his development, as well as some choice footage of Peter Tosh, showing his playful side as he interacts with Marley. Taking us from the Wailers’ first rehearsal to the launch of their international career and the release of the landmark Catch a Fire and Burnin′ albums, this lovely film is both an intimate and expansive experience.

Rudeboy: The Story of Trojan Records (2018)

Director: Nicolas Jack Davies

Rudeboy: The Story of Trojan Records (2018)

A slick and celebratory documentary that also works as a companion piece to, and extension of, Ové’s Reggae in its focus on the connections between Jamaican music and British youth culture, Rudeboy: The Story of Trojan Records mixes up archive footage, new interviews and dramatisations to tell the story of the British record label, founded in 1968, that was key in introducing reggae to a global audience. 

With contributions from Toots Hibbert, Pauline Black, Don Letts, Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry (subject of his own doc in 2008’s The Upsetter) and many more, Nicolas Jack Davies’ film is particularly good at placing the narrative of the label in wider social and historical contexts of independence, immigration and integration, making a thoroughly convincing case for its cultural impact. 

Lovers Rock (2020)

Director: Steve McQueen

Lovers Rock (2020)

From the use of Toots and the Maytals’ ‘Pressure Drop’ at the end of Mangrove to Al Green’s cover of ‘How Can You Mend a Broken Heart’ in Red, White and Blue, music plays a pivotal role across Steve McQueen’s Small Axe series, and most prominently in Lovers Rock. While Menelik Shabazz’s 2011 doc The Story of Lovers Rock explored the Black British subgenre of slow-groove, ‘romantic reggae’ through interviews, archive footage and live performances, McQueen’s film – a companion piece of sorts – ‘catches the vibe’ in a different way. It immerses the viewer in a 1980 London blues party where tensions, safe space solidarity and a burgeoning romance play out in rhythm with the music. 

Lovingly detailed, the film’s gorgeous colour palette and bracing tactility are totally seductive: director of photography Shabier Kirchner said that he and McQueen “wanted the camera to be a person at the party”. The centrepiece sequence – a spontaneous a cappella group rendition of Janet Kay’s immortal 1979 hit ‘Silly Games’ – established itself as an instant classic, transforming the song, in the words of its composer Dennis Bovell (who appears in the film in a cameo), into “a kind of spiritual and a kind of protest”.

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