Thursday, November 13, 2008
The Upbeat: Documentary on Utah Ska
If you went to high school in the 90’s, you most likely heard of the musical phenomenon that was Ska music. Especially if you lived in Utah. Have you ever wondered what Ska music is, where it came from, and why it ended up in Utah of all places? Well, the answer to these pressing questions have been answered once and for all in my good friend Brandon Smith’s new documentary, “the Upbeat,” which is now out on DVD.
Very few modern music genres can boast as interesting a history as Ska music can. And the history of the music is really quite complex and so most attempts to tell its story are usually gross misrepresentations. However, The Upbeat manages to do a very good characterization of the music while at the same time managing to explain how and why it has ended up in divers places such as Utah.
The Upbeat tells the story of the music’s journey from the Island of Jamaica in the 60s, to Great Britain in the 70s, to the United States in the 80s , and finally to Utah in the 90s. The back-story of the documentary is fantastic and is fully supported by some of the biggest names in the music that have spanned the years, including Fredrick “Toots” Hibbert of Toots and the Maytals, “Buster Blood Vessel” of Bad Manners, Rob “Bucket” Hingley of the Toasters, and Victor Ruggierro and Dave Hillyard of the Slackers. What is also impressive about these interviews is that they represent all the eras of the music starting with Toots Hibbert from the Jamaican era. The way the documentary ties the story of Ska music itself into Utah’s experience with it was one of the better crafted elements of the film.
I don’t think the purpose of this documentary was merely meant to be a “puff piece” on Ska and Utah, and the documentary’s assessment of the Utah’s experience with music shows that.
The documentary tells the story of how Utah went from being one of the biggest boomtowns for Ska music in the United States to being one of the biggest ghost towns for the music in the United States. The film contrasts what made Ska so popular and trendy in the 90s with what Makes Ska so meaningful today that some are willing to keep the music moving forward despite the fact that its no longer popular and trendy. This includes personal interviews with most of Utah’s biggest 1990’s Ska bands like My Man Friday and Stretch Armstrong and today’s ever faithful leftovers from the 90s that just couldn’t give up the faith, like 2 1/2 White Guys, Fews and Two, and the Upstarts.
The other interesting theme the documentary develops is the “traditional” vs. “third wave” divide in Ska. That is, the debate between those that would rather keep the music pure and reflective of the original Jamaican sound and those that want to modify or modernize it, yet still call it Ska. You probably know where I come down in that debate, and I am quoted in the film in that regard.
Yes, I am in the film. I am actually kind of a substantial part of it. I feel kind of silly admitting this since I am writing this blog on the film and I’m sure that it most likely sounds like a great deal of self-promotion. Not to mention the fact that my critique is obviously biased. However, bias aside, I sincerely thought Brandon did a great job on the film. I’m just glad someone did a documentary on the subject. It’s so nostalgic for me, but I think anyone watching this film would enjoy it, especially if you already enjoy documentary films.
Incidentally, if you are interested in getting a copy, you can go to this link and order one. Along with the DVD comes a Utah Ska compilation CD comprised of several bands from over the years. http://www.theupbeatmovie.com/
My Man Friday
Me, my friend Ben, and some other people we used to see at shows up in Salt Lake. The kid taking the picture was the kid that we knew best, and obviously he's not in the picture. Look at that goofy smile of mine. What was I doing?