A celebratory music documentary marking the 50th anniversary of the London record label that became the “Motown of reggae.”
A British story with strong roots in Jamaica, Rudeboy chronicles the rise and fall of London-based record label Trojan, a kind of shoestring mini-Motown operation which enjoyed huge success in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Chiefly a licensing company dealing in imported Jamaican singles, Trojan introduced reggae, ska and rock-steady to mainstream U.K. pop fans, scoring million-selling hits and popularizing artists including Desmond Dekker; Bob and Marcia; Jimmy Cliff; Toots and the Maytals; and Lee “Scratch” Perry.
Commissioned by Trojan’s current parent company BMG to commemorate the label’s 50th anniversary, Rudeboy is a visually slick, celebratory affair directed by Nicolas Jack Davies, previously best known for making longform videos with the folk-pop band Mumford and Sons. Aimed squarely at a general audience, the film contains little that fans of the label, or reggae music in general, will not already know. All the same, this love letter to one of Britain’s first multicultural pop movements is an effortlessly enjoyable viewing experience with a rich, sunny, consistently uplifting soundtrack.
World-premiered last month at the London Film Festival, Rudeboy has obvious feel-good festival appeal. It made its U.S. debut earlier this week at DOC NYC and screens at IDFA in the Netherlands later this month. Currently on selective theatrical release in the U.K., it will most likely find a more devoted following on small-screen and home entertainment formats.
Rudeboy takes its name from the Jamaican slang term for sharply dressed juvenile delinquents, often with criminal connections. Davis tracks how this subculture and its attendant musical movement migrated to Britain, where it was widely embraced by young record buyers. Some of the most devout were white working-class skinheads: “the fashion version, not the fascist version that emerged later,” explains one interviewee, musician and filmmaker Don Letts.
Between interviews with key figures in the label’s history like Lloyd Coxsone, Derrick Morgan, Toots Hibbert and Marcia Griffiths, Davis recreates history with a poetic eye. Rather than rely on scratchy archives, he employs actors to re-enact vignettes from the early days of Trojan. These mini dramatic reconstructions are shot with a dreamy, slo-mo, artfully retro Mad Men feel — low on documentary realism but big on atmosphere.
Racism is an inescapable element of Rudeboy. Indeed, the film feels depressingly timely as Britain wrestles with a messy Brexit divorce that was largely triggered by immigration anxieties, on top of recent scandals about the shameful mistreatment of elderly Caribbean migrants who arrived from former colonies of the British Empire in the 1940s and 1950s.
The Trojan label was born in 1968, the same year as a notoriously inflammatory anti-immigration speech by British politician Enoch Powell. Some of the older Jamaican interviewees recall the hostility they met on first arriving in the “step-motherland.” Indeed, the rise of reggae sound system culture in Britain was partly a response to black people being barred from white clubs.
Rudeboy is thin on detail about Trojan’s business dealings, skimming over a crucial partnership with Chris Blackwell of Island Records, who withdrew in 1972 to concentrate on making Bob Marley into reggae’s first global superstar. The original Trojan label went into liquidation in 1975, though it has since been sporadically revived by various corporate owners.
Davis concludes this lively, gossipy, warm-hearted documentary by examining Trojan’s lasting legacy in helping to inspire later generations of multi-racial British bands, anti-racist youth movements and cultural events like the annual Notting Hill carnival in West London. Whether one short-lived record label really made such a seismic impact is debatable, but Rudeboy still strikes an infectiously upbeat note, not least with its vibrant soundtrack of vintage pop gems.
Production companies: Pulse Films, BMG
Cast: Dandy Livingstone, Lloyd Coxsone, Dave Barker, Derrick Morgan, Roy Ellis, Dave Betteridge, Marcia Griffiths, Don Letts, Neville Staple, Pauline Black
Director: Nicolas Jack Davis
Producers: Sam Bridger, Vivienne Perry
Cinematographer: Jonas Mortensen
Editor: Chris Duveen
Venue: London Film Festival
Sales: Submarine, New York