Deep Roots Music, Vol. 2: Bunny Lee Story and Black Ark
Screen Gems // Unrated // $19.95 // January 22, 2008
Review by Kurt Dahlke | posted January 30, 2008
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Deep Roots Music 2: Bunny Lee Story/Black Ark:

This is the real roots music, with awesome footage from the early 1980s and much earlier, with great informal interviews, vintage performances and studio sessions. Deep Roots Music, a six part series filmed by Howard Johnson directly after Bob Marley's death in 1981, examines the origins of reggae music, its performers, producers, toasters, and its connection to Rastafarianism and the people of Jamaica.

Part three tells the Bunny Lee story. Lee is a legendary record producer from the late 1960s with hits from The Sensations, Delroy Wilson and Eric Donaldson among others. Johnson Pulls from footage of vocal recording sessions in Prince Jammy's studio (Wayne Smith, Junior Reed, etc.), a back porch interview session with Lee, his parents, friends and recording stars (Delroy Wilson, Prince Jazzbo), archival footage, and Rastafarian jam sessions.

Part Four invites us into Lee "Scratch" Perry's Black Ark studio (proving definitively that Perry is as crazy as they say) and also includes rare footage of Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie and a session of Nyabinghi drumming that is nothing short of amazing.

For whatever reason, the smell of the Rastafarian sacrament pretty much will blast out of your DVD player as you watch this - its presence informs the structure of the documentaries as much as it informs reggae music. Which is of course not to say that the production of the documentary was influenced by that herb, but you probably get my meaning. In between the very informal and somewhat rambling interviews with Lee and compatriots (complete with nearly indecipherable accents) are the historical snippets (mostly band performances) and recording sessions - which are primarily full-length versions of songs. What I'm trying to say is that the focus is very much on the music, and the music is spectacular. Prince Jammy cues the tape, five or six people start grooving behind him, sometimes smoking cones, sometimes joints, sometimes nothing, the camera enters the egg-cartons-and-cement vocal recording booth (I'm guessing Jammy was rolling but not recording ...) and the irie truly flows. Loose, willing to get lost in the music, but informative in the Island way, The Bunny Lee Story is an historic document.

Even more shambolic is Part Four at Black Ark. Footage of Perry consists of him strutting about in the street in front of the studio eliciting impromptu vocal performances from passers-by, self-recording strange vocal songs/chants and proselytizing about Reggae's connection to Jah Rastafari (also in the form of strange chants - it's just what Perry does). At one point Perry seems to conscript catholic school children to endlessly play riffs on the keyboard so that he can continue orating on Black Power with a backing track. Whatever his cracked methods, he tends to make you believe.

Stunning Nyabinghi drumming with Count Ossie, Tommy McCook and Skully will seem a highlight to many. Their religious intensity, hypnotic rhythms and moving music - all played effortlessly after ingesting enough herb to kill an entire frat-house - is a formidable testament and simply amazing footage. Though I love Perry, the music on this part, including a session with The Mighty Diamonds, is less to my taste than in the Bunny Lee Story, but all in all and once again, this is the real roots music, and a must for true reggae fans.

The DVD

Video:
Deep Roots Music's roots are showing. Presented in a fullscreen 1.33:1 ratio, the footage is decent but betrays its age and rarity. Of course film grain is well evident and obviously increases as the age of the footage does, and there are numerous incidents of film damage, but this will all fade as the music takes center stage. Colors are pretty good, considering, and digital compression is decent.

Sound:
Digital Audio also wears its age on its sleeve. The older band footage, such as some very early Mento footage, is pretty soft, but not scratchy and is easy to get into. The Prince Jammy/ Lee Perry footage has much better sound quality; reggae lovers will love it. The interviews with Bunny Lee and crew, or with Perry as he wanders around are a little tough sometimes to hear, as microphones weren't able to get close enough to soft-voices, or Perry kept spinning around. Mostly the smoke thickened accents prove to be a real challenge to understand. Eventually you sort of get into the rhythm, but subtitles would actually be quite nice.

Extras:
No extras to speak of except descriptions of the other volumes of Deep Roots Music.

Final Thoughts:
Deep Roots Music 2 takes superb footage, the relaxed reggae attitude and killer performances to loosely weave together part of the story of reggae. It makes me want to learn more, as both someone interested in history, and as a fan of the music. The Bunny Lee story trumps Black Ark in terms of smooth grooves, but both parts instill knowledge and insight about the Jamaican music experience. For hardcore reggae fans this bare-bones time capsule is recommended. Music history buffs and others might Rent It, if they want to know about the real roots music.



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