That Franco Rosso’s Babylon should be given a U.S. release at this time, nearly 40 years after the film premiered in the UK, is particularly poignant. It’s a dark, uncompromising drama set in the subculture of London’s reggae sound systems, originally framed as a comment on the innate polarization of life in the capital during the 1970s. However, the plotline’s swift descent into chaos from which neither side can return could so easily serve as a present-day metaphor for Britain’s Brexit mayhem or aspects of Donald Trump’s White House. Babylon has stood the test of time precisely because those problems never went away, just changed their clothes and started dancing to a different beat.
The film was conceived as a BBC Play For Today, a slot for one-off dramas often with a socio-political bent, but Rosso realized it could be bigger than that. A wise choice, as it’s doubtful the BBC would have gone with a vision as hard-nosed as his and anything less visceral would have rendered the story pretty much pointless. The potentially incendiary effect of the underdog fighting back, presented in such instinctively identifiable terms—during peak punk rock and Thatcher years, practically every UK urbanite under 30 knew someone like protagonist Blue—is, apparently, what caused U.S. distributors to back away from the film for so long. Babylon should wear that fact as a badge of honor as it takes its rightful place alongside The Harder They Come and Rockers as one of the best reggae films ever made. It continues its spread this spring thanks to screenings nationwide, with a physical/streaming release expected in the fall.
On the surface, Babylon follows a roots reggae sound system crew, Ital Lion, as its members prepare for a sound clash against the reigning area group. Fueled by Ital Lion’s onslaught of previously unheard and totally unmatchable 12-inch singles, this quest to be the best becomes almost a subplot. Rosso instead shows us this life through the lens of Blue, Ital Lion’s charismatic DJ. Pressures in Blue’s world spiral through police harassment, an openly racist employer, and violently hostile neighbors, to a point where the sound system, his only escape hatch, comes under threat. It’s a neat juggling act, as sound system members absorb Blue’s stresses but still get on with the day-to-day business of winning the clash and the single-mindedness that involves. The DJ’s escalating do-or-die state of affairs lends a compelling urgency to what is, essentially, “our records are better than yours.”
As relevant as the socio-political commentary is, Babylonleft such a deep impression because the sound system rivalry story took on the feel of a thriller. This is, essentially, Mean Streets for a dubwise audience. Rosso left nothing to chance, creating a world so complete and so compelling, it’s impossible to look away. Even the overt and, to 21st-century ears, unbelievably offensive racism becomes such a natural part of the overall tapestry, the film needs to be continually ramped up to get a reaction.
Rosso nails the scruffy, edgy part of London, filming in actual locations around Deptford, an area rife with racial tension (but with none of the perceived romance of Brixton). There weren’t enough unionized black or elderly extras to populate various scenes so locals were roped in to “just act naturally”: the people in the pub are real customers in a real taproom, just as the guys milling around the Job Centre are actually looking for work. This creates a wash of random dishevelment no set dressing or wardrobe could get near, added to which are the candidly shot street scenes that have an almost bewildering level of unpredictability and overcrowding. Babylon never has to work too hard to convince the audience of its authenticity.
The real skill comes in the painstaking observation of the central characters—the Ital Lion posse, the rival sound system, and the ghetto businessmen they have to deal with. Too often, actors portraying music people reduce subcultures to varying sets of clichés. Black music, especially when handled in the UK, tends to cause even more problems. The casting of Brinsley Forde, former child TV actor and then-leader of foremost UK roots reggae band Aswad, as Blue led the way. There was little he wouldn’t have known about the London sound system circuit, its rivalry and paranoia, the importance of a unique tune, and the band of brothers mentality at the heart of such an operation. Indeed, it was was Forde and Aswad who wrote and performed the iconic dub at the centre of the story, called “Warrior Charge.”
Ital Lion’s on-screen rival was legendary London soundman Jah Shaka playing himself, while others from London’s reggae fraternity–promoters, MCs, managers–carried out their day jobs in front of the cameras. The actors were the cream of London’s emerging black TV and stage talent, undoubtedly familiar with the sound system world on a social level in the same way practically every black teenager was. (A fair degree of nightclub apartheid was in operation in London in the 1970s.) Rosso, who was of Italian descent, allowed the actors nearly free rein with their characters. All of young, black London life got represented in terms of dress code and attitude, even tribes within tribes. As obvious as this seems for a filmmaker, in the UK (and beyond) dramatic presentation still leans toward “all black people are this… they look like that… and they behave like this”; in 1980, Rosso’s approach was a revelation.
Perhaps most importantly, this nuanced depiction of Ital Lion isn’t let down by the music on their turntable. A playlist of superb rebel reggae, with another tune from Aswad, is supplemented with a touch of lovers rock and some lively roots humor, showing the scope of ’70s reggae to be as varied as its audience. What elevates Babylon is the incidental music scored by UK dub master Dennis Bovell, leader of Matumbi and LKJ’s Dub Band, and previously a sound system operator himself. Although plentiful, it seldom grabs attention but still provides an irresistible reggae soundbed, helping to reposition the grubby, hostile South London streets as Blue’s own.
Lloyd Bradley is the author of This Is Reggae Music, originally published in the UK as Bass Culture: When Reggae Was King.