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Review: Getting It Back: The Story of Cymande


- Tim MacKenzie-Smith largely avoids the pitfalls of the music documentary in this endearing portrait of a British band silenced by racism at home but wildly influential in the decades that followed

Review: Getting It Back: The Story of Cymande

Music documentaries always have to grapple with the question of who their audience is. To hardcore fans of a given band or musician, they are unlikely to provide new information, and the substantial fanbase that justifies making the film in the first place is hooked instead with promises of new interviews with talent or recently unearthed concert footage. In such cases, however, the film can act as a fitting introduction for more casual appreciators, enticing them to look beyond the well-known hits and to dig deeper into a discography. When the act is virtually unknown, as is the case of Cymande, the British band at the centre of Tim MacKenzie-Smith’s Getting It Back: The Story of Cymande, which BFI is releasing in the UK and Ireland tomorrow 16 February, many filmmakers choose to focus instead on the autobiographical story of the artists and the ups and downs of their careers (the holy grail in this category remains Searching for Sugar Man [+see also:
film profile
, whose subject wasn’t just little-known, but also rumoured to be dead). But while the members of Cymande are virtually unknown today, their story is hardly as explosive.

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In fact, it is in a way depressingly banal: after meeting with huge success in America, the band formed entirely of young Black musicians from the Caribbean diaspora in London went back home to racist 1970s England, where they struggled to book shows or to attract any attention with their music. It is a grim story that MacKenzie-Smith seems uninclined to spend too much time on, perhaps because it is so sad. Although the members of the band simply moved on to more conventional careers and started families, which isn’t such a bad fate after all, the violence of the silence that greeted them back in the UK is haunting.

While the film goes some way towards contextualising Cymande’s story, with mentions of the overt displays of xenophobia in the UK at the time, it is devoid of righteous rage. Cymande are discussed as a political band that was unafraid to address the tensions of the era in their music, but the film’s mood in those moments is one of polite resignation rather than anger. This could be out of concern for the sensibilities of certain audiences, or because Cymande did eventually get the recognition they deserved: in the 1980s and 1990s, their music was rediscovered on both sides of the ocean by hip hop and rap artists sampling their songs.

Unlike many such documentaries, Getting It Back features in-depth, fascinating analysis of the music, identifying the various elements that constitute it: from funk to jazz and calypso, borrowing from the various African cultures of its members and which they heard across South London growing up. The film also includes entertaining clips from music videos of the 80s and beyond, highlighting recognisable samples in other songs belonging to a wide variety of genres. The musicians and Cymande fans interviewed throughout (among them producer Mark Ronson, British DJ Norman Jay, and DJ Maseo of De La Soul) frequently chip in with unverifiable claims about how revolutionary this band was (an all too familiar trope in music docs). But every once in a while, they do offer fascinating insight into what has made songs such as “Dove” or “The Message” so memorable and timeless as to still be referenced and quoted 50 years on.

The most striking moments of the film, however, remain the testimonies of the band members themselves: it is hard not to be moved seeing them interviewed now about their work, and celebrated by legions of fans of all ages. A later segment about the miracle of the internet giving Cymande another life feels like a simplistic reading of the situation, considering the dismal fees streaming platforms pay musicians — for a band that struggled to get the success it deserved the first time around, seeing their music now get thousands of plays in exchange for peanuts must feel bittersweet. Much less ambiguous is the joy on the faces of both artists and audiences during the live reunion shows seen in the film, and the feeling of gratitude that emanates from the band remains the film’s most lasting impression.

Getting It Back: The Story of Cymande was produced by Tim MacKenzie-Smith and Matt Wyllie (who also edited the film), with John Battsek and Daniel Gordon as executive producers.

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