Reviews of the film – 1980s

New Musical Express review by Ian Penman, November 8th 1980:

Reggae in the reel worId

Babylon, Directed by Franco Rosso. Starring Brinsley Forde and Karl Howman (Osiris)

RHYTHMS swarm and pound through Babylon: the warrior charge sound of Aswad, the voltage punch of sound systems, the collision and crash of different cultures, the inhibited body blows of prejudice, the beat of fleeing. fighting and freedom.

Superficially, Babylon is the story of a South London reggae sound system and its battle for survival and success. But its themes extend and embrace wider and deeper – as might be expected of Franco Rosso, a director renowned for an unflinching attitude toward questions of racial culture and racial ignorance; recall the BBC ban slapped on his Linton Kwesi Johnson Dread, Beat And Blood documentary before the last election.

Rosso is an Italian who grew up in London – an upbringing that probably accounts for his acute empathy with (displaced) black culture, and his ability to prise open British politics at their bloodiest and most personal base without any hint of hack dialectic. Babylon succeeds on three distinct but, crucially, always interlocking levels: as a movie, as movie about a specific subject, and as a movie about being young and British in 1980. it succeeds where other recent attempts failed miserably (Jubilee, the execrable Rude Boy, Breaking Glass).

The word ‘babylon’ is a mnemonic for oppression, in all its manifestations, spiralling down from a monetarist, middle-class government, through SUSpicious police patrol cars, intolerant and unduly violent members of the community to something as glum as a docked wage packet. Babylon isn’t undergoing (the) recession – it’s enjoying enforcing it.

Babylon gets that atmosphere. Ital Lion is the film’s ‘fictional’ sound system, run by a group of friends in South London. The speakers are saved for, stolen, home made – records bartered for. Dreadhead (Archie Pool) is the father figure who directs – well dressed and cool. Blue (Brinsley Forde of Aswad) and his white mate Ronnie (Karl Howman) work in a garage (whose owner is played by Mel Smith of Not The Nine O’Clock News) by day, and put everything into Ital Lion by night. As they progress toward a battle with Jah Shaka (real life Number One sound in London) trouble and strife with employment, sex, money, family and community have to be faced. After a night during which he is picked up on SUS, his girlfriend leaves him and he is an unwilling party to a brutal mugging, Blue returns to the garage where Ital Lions store their gear only to find the lock forced, the system trashed and the interior smirched with racist graffiti. When the others arrive and the discovery sinks in, the anger so far contained finds its irrational locus in Ronnie – the most emotionally charged, jarring, honest and perhaps even pessimistic scene in the film.

All the gut contradictions and problems of racial fear and racial sympathy gell and splinter: just how do we go on from here? Rosso, however, misses being overtly moralistic by miles.. Prejudice, helplessness and hopeless ire are all put firmly in contextually determined places. No one is guilty perse – everyone is a product of a variety of influences, of subtle propaganda.

The film’s conclusions are yours to see and feel – its penultimate progress is urgently moving and that movement of meanings cannot be ignored. Babylon must be seen.

Sounds review by Dave Hendley, 17 May, 1980:
(Thanks to Tim Wells for transcribing this on his excellent Stand Up And Spit blog.)

Babylon Too Rough

Directed by Franco Ross [sic],
National Film Finance Corporation

The film industry seems to be fast running out of youth sub-cults to plunder. In desperation the makers of Babylon turn their attention and art college mentality towards the world of reggae sound systems, a hitherto untouched Aladdin’s cave of social injustice and trendy causes.

Babylon is a fictional account of the trials and tribulations of ‘Ital Lion’, a fifth rate and highly unlikely South London youth sound who find themselves in the equally unlikely situation of playing against Jah Shaka (a real life sound) in the finals of a sound system contest. The film is centred around the character of Blue (played by Aswad’s Brinsley Forde), the ‘Ital Lion’ deejay who is portrayed as something of a thinking man’s Ranking Joe. During the course of the film nearly every disaster under the sun befalls the hapless Blue, he loses his job, gets nicked for sus, rucks with his old man and leaves home, discovers his girlfriend carrying on with another bloke, stabs a fat white man and has his amps and speakers smashed by National Front sympathisers. Lesser men would have topped themselves in the first reel.

Needless to say Babylon is the white middle class media view of a potent black underground culture, and of course the film gets it all wrong. All the characters are as if they’d stepped out of a BBC social comment soap opera. For instance Ronnie, the film’s token white, is a gormless David Essex clone, the blacks are all unemployed petty criminals while the old bill are all racist stormtroopers out for a spot of spade bashing. The film’s only high spots are provided by Brinsley Forde’s Blue and the superb cameo appearance of Shaka himself, captured on celluloid at the height of his syndrum period.

Babylon would be excusable if it at least had some decent music in it. Unhappily the only good selections on the entire soundtrack are snatches of Vivian Jackson’s ‘Deliver Me From My Enemies’ and Shaka’s Johnny Clarke dub, and for the rest it’s a fairly un-crucial collection of UK made instrumentals, the sort of thing no real sound would allow within a hundred yards of its turntable.

Time Out 23-29 May 1985 (quoted in Bourne S (ed) Black in the British Frame, Black People in British Film and Television 1896-1996, pub Cassell 1998):

“Caught a little awkwardly between drama-doc and melodrama, but otherwise a powerful and pretty intelligent account of the problems facing young unemployed blacks in Britain today… what distinguishes the film as a whole is the way it sharply depicts the details of its characters’ lives: the importance of reggae, the gulf between parents and offspring, and a precise sense of location and community. And Aswad’s Forde is excellent as Blue.”

Molara Ogundipe-Leslie, Guardian 7 January 1981 (quoted in Bourne S (ed) Black in the British Frame, Black People in British Film and Television 1896-1996, pub Cassell 1998)

“If there are funds for the making of such films as Babylon, should they not be awarded to black film-makers? Or, could non-black film-makers work more closely at the conceptual level with black artists and intellectuals who know their people better and who can define their own reality more truthfully? This is not to argue that culture runs in genes but to say that it is necessary to know a people’s emotional life from within to produce authentic works of art about such people. And the barriers are not racial: they are cultural, psychological, and emotional.”
“For Babylon Franco Rosso received the 1981 Evening Standard Film Award for Most Promising Film-maker” (quoted in Bourne S (ed) Black in the British Frame, Black People in British Film and Television 1896-1996, pub Cassell 1998)

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