Trinidad and Tobago turns out fantastically expressive artists on the microphone, steel pan, printed page and cricket bat, but hardly any movies. In fact, when Ismail Merchant's leisurely adaptation of V.S. Naipaul's The Mystic Masseur makes it to DVD -- likely later this year -- it'll be the one and only feature film about the home of Carnival available on disc.
In the meantime, we go elsewhere for the spirit (and politics) of jump-up.
black orpheus (1959, Criterion) dir. Marcel Camus w/ Breno Mello, Marpessa Dawn. Rating: NNNN
On paper Black Orpheus sounds schematic, transplanting the Orpheus and Eurydice myth from ancient Greece to Brazil's Carnival. But in the telling, Black Orpheus is a surprisingly supple intermingling of tropicalist romance and tragic fate. Camus won the Palme d'Or at Cannes in 1959 for the film, and while its exoticizing charm has faded, it's still a gorgeous thing to look at and listen to.
Criterion's remastered soundtrack brings back the monophonic glory of the bossa nova sound, which Antonio Carlos Jobim and Luiz Bonfá took global with this film. And the film transfer juices up Camus's vivid colours, even if Rio's hillside favelas look suspiciously picturesque. The English subtitles are far better than the dub track, but the best extra of all is the curious French trailer, narrated by a talking guitar.
EXTRAS: Four extra minutes of footage, remastered soundtrack, English subtitles and dub track, French trailer.
the harder they come (1973, Criterion) dir. Perry Henzell w/ Jimmy Cliff, Janet Barkley, Carl Bradshaw. Rating: NNNN
What Black Orpheus did for bossa nova, The Harder They Come did for reggae. Nearly every song in this movie became a classic in the era when reggae had just emerged from rock steady.
Jimmy Cliff plays a country boy seduced and abandoned by big-city music dreams. Henzell and Trevor Rhone took the story from a real-life Jamaican outlaw and turned it into movie myth. The result has an emotional pull to match Scarface, and resonates with just about every gangsta musician since. But what's often forgotten is this film's thorough critique of music industry exploitation.
Ironically, Criterion's disc includes an interview with Island Records honcho Chris Blackwell, who's been accused of liberally enjoying profits earned at the expense of artists like Bob Marley.
EXTRAS: Audio commentary by Henzell and Cliff, video interview with Island Records head Chris Blackwell, musicians' bios, English subtitles.
dancehall queen (1997, Island/Ryko) dir. Rick Elgood and Don Letts w/ Audrey Reid, Paul Campbell, Beenie Man. Rating: Nn
For those who cared, Dancehall Queen marked an epochal truce between Beenie Man and Bounty Killer. For everyone else, it was the first time the raw, ragged spirit of dancehall reggae made it to the big screen.
Co-directors Elgood and Letts (the dreadie from the group Big Audio Dynamite) packed plenty of slack lyrics and sexy batty riders into the film. But they grounded it in eternal melodrama. It's the story of a poor Kingston woman who's forced to pimp her own daughter to her boyfriend, until she hits on a better way out -- success in the dancehall.
Dancehall Queen rushes along with the rough rhythm of a B-musical or a tropical soap opera, which is its genius. The actors bring verve and true style, and Wally Badarou's score is peppered with a galaxy of dancehall stars. Beenie Man provides the title track, and he's joined by Bounty Killer, Lady Saw, Junior Demus and Sanchez.
EXTRAS: English subtitles, trailer.
= Critics' Pick
NNNNN = excellent, maintains big screen impact
NNNN = very good
NNN = worth a peek
NN = Mediocre
N = Bomb
No rating indicates no screening copy