'Razor' tracks reggae's roots in depths of poverty, oppression

October 25, 1993|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

It remains a haunting truth that out of the most abject of misery comes the most sublime of art. Thus it was that 400 years of oppression on this continent created the idiom known as jazz and thus it was in an island nation in the Caribbean that the same oppression created the idiom known as reggae.

The best thing about "Stepping Razor -- Red X," a docu-biography of one of the original Wailers, Peter Tosh, is that it places him and the music at its truest source: the decrepit, violent and hopeless slums of Kingston, Jamaica.

The film, impressionistic and jangled, makes use of the "Red X" tapes that Tosh himself left before his murder in 1987, which are visually enhanced by having a look-alike mouth the passionate words as the recordings play.

They form a sort of spine to the work, and at the same time introduce us to his passions, his gifts and his strangeness.

Sometimes called the Jamaican Malcolm X, Tosh used his musical success that came out of the explosion of the reggae sound in the late '60s and early '70s as a platform for Rasta, the mystic, marijuana-haunted religion of the island, and for an uncompromising commitment to equal rights.

The music, so lovely and driven, is underneath a screed of the greatest bitterness. He was clearly a man fueled by hatred.

The film, put together by Nicholas Campbell, captures the chaos of Tosh's life and reflects the intensity with which he lived and died. Sometimes straight "western" journalism, and sometimes archival material and sometimes weirdly impressionistic riffs on its subject, it's fascinating. And that music is great!

MOVIE REVIEW

"Stepping Razor -- Red X"

Documentary

Directed by Nicholas Campbell

Released by Northern Arts Entertainment

Unrated

***

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