By Robert Christgau and Carola Dibbell
Industrial-age ethnomusicology with travelogue, Jeremy Marre's 12 one-hour Beats of the Heart documentaries of the late '70s and early '80s were cheered by world-pop fans when PBS broadcast them in 1986. This was an amazing enterprise--ranging from China and Japan to Appalachia and the Tex-Mex border, Marre did pioneering research into what was then mostly pure esoterica. The reggae and salsa chapters now available from the world-pop record label Shanachie were obvious enough documentary material, but who would have thought in 1980 that both Nigerian and South African music would have a sizable American audience before the decade was over?
Though it should go without saying that the docs have dated some, he chose his locations so well that they're still redolent, and his focus is prescient. Just by doing his legwork he knew enough to include Sunny Adé and Ladysmith Black Mambazo, and the reggae segment, completed long before Marley died and Seaga came to power, is an all-star cavalcade--the only essential performer who doesn't talk or play is seminal lover's-rock crooner Gregory Isaacs. As cultural observer, Marre's camera almost equals Les Blank's. Kingston producer Duke Reid's backyard auditions, the all-night Johannesburg choral contest, the Mahotella Queens donning their Afro wigs, the tacky interior of a Nigerian "royal residence," the crawling traffic of Lagos--these are rich images that make you forgive the sometimes preachy narration.
Almost, anyway--Marre does strain to fulfill his political correctness quotient. Bogged down beneath Felipe Luciano's lectures on Puerto Rican pride, too many of Salsa's scenes seem staged--the film is saved by the indomitable Celia Cruz and the much less tendentious political commentary (and music) of a young Ruben Blades. In all four titles there's too much music-woven into-the-fabric-of-life cliche. But otherwise the offensive portions are usually limited to a few oversimplifications about the music business, which in case you didn't know is capitalist.
Roots, Rock, Reggae is superb, Konkombe and Rhythm of Resistance are constantly surprising. All three are guaranteed to equal or surpass whatever learning aid your PBS outlet has in store tonight--and to entertain better than most of the titles down at the video store. Despite its shortcomings, even Salsa stands up to repeated viewings. Music may not be the universal language, but it sure gets somewhere trying.
Video Review, Apr. 1989