'Legends of Ska': Film Review

Legends of Ska: Cool & Copasetic - H 2015
Courtesy of Film Society of Lincoln Center

Legends of Ska: Cool & Copasetic - H 2015

A welcome, but uneven, introduction to the musical genre.

How Jamaica turned from American R&B to home-grown talent.

Don't expect to see skankin' English skinheads in Brad Klein's Legends of Ska, a documentary whose focus on the enormously influential genre's Jamaican creators has no interest in the waves of sometimes-dubious copycats they inspired. In fact, one shouldn't even expect a truly thorough introduction to those ancestors of reggae, dub and other spinoff styles: While Klein is happy to mention greats like Jackie Mittoo and Desmond Dekker in passing, he reserves most screen time for the performers who participated in a 2002 Toronto reunion concert and sat down for interviews. Despite uneven production values and the leftover-ish feel of a finished product that took more than a decade to arrive, the doc has enough musical and anecdotal highlights to be appreciated by fans on video.

Thankfully, the film is much more than just a document of that 2002 event; it combines that live footage with plenty of interviews and archival material, filling in gaps with its own take on ska's origins. However square and institutional the narration is, it does offer a strong sense of what a fertile ground Kingston was in the late '50s, when "sound systems" run by rival DJs would spin imported R&B discs and try to out-amplify their peers. (Foreigner Chris Blackwell, who would later found Island Records, remembers opportunistically buying 78s for half a buck in the States and selling them in Jamaica for a hundred pounds — after having scratched up the labels so his customers couldn't seek out more records directly.)

While local producers like Coxsone Dodd and Duke Reid were working with local musicians and the Federal Records label introduced a way to get their music on wax, a distinctive sound materialized. As percussionist Larry McDonald delightfully puts it here, ska was "this kinda turned-around, herky-jerky rhythm, with some criminal bebop solos on top of it." Alton Ellis and others demonstrate how hanging on to the after-beat defined the music, leaving it to Klein to trace its progression through the formation of The Skatalites, mass migration to England and an initially ham-fisted attempt to introduce it to America. (Check YouTube for Bob Hope and Annette Funicello performing "Jamaica Ska" if you'd like a taste.)

The narrative spins out into scattered anecdote from here, from the tragic story of Don Drummond to the sweet one of Millicent "Patsy" Todd — who tasted stardom, then spent three decades working in a New York hospital with colleagues who didn't know she'd been a singer, then enjoyed returning to the limelight on that Toronto stage. But ska's life beyond the mid-'60s is a much bigger story than can fit in this uneven, but likeable, film.

Production company: Steady Rock Productions

Director: Brad Klein

Screenwriters: Brad Klein, Ron Halpern

Producers: Jim Cargill, Ron Halpern, Lee Marshall, Renata Marshall, Kaya Marshall, Barrington Cole

Executive producers: Brad Klein

Director of photography: Michael Boland

Editor: Ron Halpern

No rating, 101 minutes