Studio One Story is an extremely ambitious and unusual multimedia release, devoted to documenting the history of Clement "Coxsone" Dodd's Studio One, one of the most important (perhaps the most important) reggae labels. Housed in a standard CD-sized two-disc box set, it's a combination DVD and CD, with a fat book of liner notes to boot. Certainly the component that will garner the most attention is the DVD disc, which contains no less than four hours of film footage. About three-quarters of the DVD is devoted to a film on the history of Dodd and Studio One, featuring extensive interview footage with Dodd and numerous artists he worked with, including Dennis Alcapone, Ken Boothe, Alton Ellis, Sugar Minott, engineer Sylvan Morris, studio musicians, and others. The remainder of the DVD contains more than an hour of bonus interview footage that didn't make it into the main feature film. The CD disc has 16 classic Studio One recordings, representing styles from ska and rocksteady to dub, with tracks by major artists like Ellis, Minott, the Heptones, the Skatalites, Lone Ranger, and Jackie Mittoo.
On one hand, the DVD in particular is a valuable document, especially considering that reggae is rarely given such serious and comprehensive documentary treatment. On the other hand, it's not optimum as entertainment, though it's worth slogging through for anyone seriously interested in the music's development from the 1950s through the 1980s. On the plus side, most of the figures interviewed, particularly Dodd, have a lot to say about Studio One's contribution to reggae. The scope is admirably wide, reaching back to Dodd's days in the 1950s as a sound system operator importing American R&B records through the construction of his studio and his development of innumerable artists, the Wailers being the most famous. Dodd was also an entrepreneur whose influence on Jamaican music was not limited to his studio productions, as he was also a label owner and sound system operator, and ran several music shops in Kingston.
Factors that make it tough to watch all three hours at once, though, are the languid pace of the footage, in which some clips are just scene-setting glimpses of Jamaican life, or in which the camera just follows Dodd and friends around as they revisit some old dancehalls. The patois of the interviewees will be hard to follow for many non-Jamaican viewers, though, remarkably, English and French subtitles are provided; even if you think your ear for patois is good, those English subtitles will probably prove to be very helpful, if only to ease the comfort of comprehension. More importantly, the Studio One story (and the story of reggae as a whole) is convoluted enough that it can be difficult to follow the tale's growth without a strong background in reggae history. This is where the accompanying 92-page liner note book comes in handy, providing a basic but easily grasped overview, even including a glossary of terms. It might sound like a schoolmasterly admonition, but it really is helpful to read the liner notes before watching the film. A notable disappointment is the shortage of vintage footage from the 1960s and 1970s. There are only some short snippets of the Skatalites (a silent clip), Count Ossie, Jackie Mittoo, and Marcia Griffiths, though to be fair, there's probably very little that exists from this period. It is also strange that the Wailers aren't discussed more, even if they were only one of hundreds of acts that Studio One recorded.
The film works best when the interviewees come up with particularly vivid stories illustrating Studio One's inventiveness, as when Dodd and others recount the audition process. Literally hundreds of aspiring artists would line up outside the studio on Sundays to be weeded through; Sugar Minott remembers how he stood out as an artist who asked to sing his songs over existing Studio One rhythm tracks. Also particularly interesting are Sylvan Morris and guitarist Eric "Rickenbacker" Frater's explanations of how the characteristically echoing sound of reggae guitar was developed, through a combination of the style of the player and the Echoplex tape machine. (The guitar on which Frater demonstrates is notably out of tune.) Helpfully, each interview segment is enclosed in attractive graphics that clearly label the name of each speaker being interviewed. Certainly the most colorful of the subjects is King Stitt, one of the earliest DJs, who when filmed for this documentary had only two teeth left, though that didn't keep him from continuing to DJ. The bonus clips aren't up to the level of those used for the principal feature, but still contain some worthwhile insights, as when Alton Ellis explains the rhythmic difference that made ska different from preceding musics. Unfortunately, there are no English (or French) subtitles for the bonus interview clips.
Although there could have been more songs placed on the CD, it does include fine Studio One recordings, particularly the Skatalites' ska instrumental "Guns of Navarone," the Heptones' beautiful harmony number "Baby," and Larry Marshall's "Nanny Goat," which is viewed in the film as the first track to use the Echoplexed reggae guitar style of chording. The liner notes, though as previously noted helpful in gaining a straightforward overview of Studio One and reggae, are actually not as big a deal as you might guess from the 92-page length; the print is very large and much of the space is taken up by vintage photos, and the booklet can be read within an hour. But overall, this set is an impressive (and reasonably priced) production that does a great deal to document a pillar of reggae's golden age.