Friday, November 25, 2011

ADIFF ’11: The Story of Lover’s Rock

A distinctly Caribbean-British phenomenon, Lover’s Rock was like the Quiet Storm of reggae, but with a stronger beat. Perfect for slow dancing, the romantic style of reggae was wildly popular, but had trouble cracking the UK charts. The under-documented music and the artists who defined it are fondly remembered in Menelik Shabazz’s The Story of Lover’s Rock (trailer here), which opens the 2011 African Diaspora International Film Festival tonight.

Though firmly rooted in reggae, Lover’s Rock was smoother, mellower, and less political than the music coming out of Jamaica at the time. It also boasted considerably more prominent female artists. Indeed, the acknowledged crossover hits were mostly sung by women, like Louisa Mark’s version of “Caught You in a Lie” and Janet Kay’s “Silly Games.”

Of course, there were plenty of men involved, especially on the production side, including bassist Dennis Bovell, the producer of “Silly Games,” who is probably Shabazz’s best interview subject. He certainly still looks and sounds cool. In fact, most of the talking heads offer a better than average degree of musical insight, though one academic comes across pretty silly explaining how the slow grind stimulated dancers’ chakras (and it is not meant as a euphemism).

While Story might sound like it should only appeal to a narrow range of fans, Lover’s Rock influenced many future top UK recording artists, including UB40 (who charted fifty UK hits, but never got their proper due, according to one rock critic) and even the Police. It has also gone global, inspiring a considerable Japanese scene (including an intriguing but unnamed band briefly seen in the film).

Strangely though, Shabazz largely eschews archival performances, choosing instead to show the artists (who have aged well, for the most part) performing a contemporary PBS-style reunion concert. Still, most artists remain in good voice, such as standout Trevor Walters, whose rendition of Lionel Ritchie’s “Stuck on You” sure goes down easy. However, the same cannot be said for the periodic sketch-interludes featuring British comedians, who are largely unknown in America, for good reason.

With this film, Shabazz makes “smooth” and “sweet” respectable. His tune selections nicely represent the music’s slinky groove, while the expert commentary puts everything in its proper context. Quite an entertaining music doc (even with the occasional comedic misstep), The Story of Lover’s Rock is quite a pleasant surprise, recommended beyond the core reggae audience. It screens tonight (11/25) as part of an opening spotlight on director Shabazz at Symphony Space and then plays for a week at the Quad Cinema, starting this coming Wednesday (11/30-12/6).