Monday 7 January 2013

Babylon and Bernstein

After devising a first-rate programme of music films for a free day-long cinema fest at Band on the Wall (Friday, Jan 4), the genial Clive Hunte came into flak when the schedule ran behind and film-lovers who turned up at 7pm expecting to see the coruscating Babylon, were treated to half the documentary The Making of West Side Story

Gang warfare is a peripheral theme of both, but there the similarity ends. Actually, Leonard Bernstein is more menacing than anyone in Babylon, and his temper tantrum after Jose Carreras fluffs 'Maria' is as scary as the famous Joe Pesci scene in Martin Scorsese's Goodfellas (you can imagine: "I'm funny how? Funny, like I'm a conductor?"). But whichever way you cut it, Kiri Te Kanawa makes an unconvincing streetwise Puerto Rican teenager. 

Whereas Babylon is an authentic depiction of the Black British experience, and without a false note anywhere. It is gritty and naturalistic and then, without any apparent shift of gear, it slips into magical film-making. The climactic battle of the sound systems is a case in point, as the crowd sway in unison to wild reggae as the police batter down the doors. Is the echo that of the revolutionary Potemkin by Eisenstein or the incendiary Battle of Algiers by Pontecorvo? Babylon holds its own in such distinguished company (actually, I much prefer it to the former). 

The music adds immeasurably to the impact (hats off to Dennis Bovell). One can understand how it acts as a trigger of transcendence for the hero Blue (Brinsley Forde) and for his Brixton posse, trying to negotiate the path to manhood with some shards of integrity as the pressure ratchets higher and higher.  

Made in 1980, Babylon nails the dishevelled yet optimistic spirit of the seventies. Any successor today would have an unlistenable soundtrack (different drugs), and would be far too harrowing to watch. The extremes of God and Gangsterism are acknowledged in Babylon, but now there's no room for the middle ground. The antithetical G's are no longer satisfied with mere lip service; both demand your soul.       

So Clive, thanks for the movies and sorry for giving you a hard time. 


  1. Site's been quiet for too long, either a latter-day "gangsta's" got to him or Dame Kiri, if we agree Clive's out of the "frame".


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