Following the success of his previous feature documentary (Here’s to Life: The Story of the Refreshments), director, Taylor Morden – an on-and-off trumpet player in ska bands for over 20 years – has returned to the world of ska to help bring the story of 90s ska to the masses. With a very successful Kickstarter campaign, the documentary took full flight and could not have been better produced, more thorough or more interesting to watch. Here’s what we had to say about it…
From the very start, there are some wonderful aspects to this film, that instantly jump out at the viewer. Firstly, there is the fantastic animation weaving its way seemlessly throughout the documentary – some of it flows over footage of the various interviewees and other sections are entirely animated – but it all works so well! Secondly, is the truly amazing cast of stars from the genre, talking about their experiences with anecdotes and opinions that they lived through during the ska scene in the 90s. Lastly, is the fact that the film is entirely narrated by Tim Armstrong (best known as the singer/guitarist for the punk rock band Rancid, and before that, the ska band, Operation Ivy – considered instrumental for the genre, despite only ever releasing one album).
But, what is ska?
Well, a lot of the cast of the film, brilliantly sum it up as “fast reggae with horns”.
Near the beginning of the film, we’re treated to a journey through the origins of ska, back in the 1950s, with a beautifully descriptive piece about what nights of ska music would have been like in its native Jamaica and then how it made its way over to the UK, settling in places like Brixton, Notting Hill and Coventry and on from there. This whole segment is accompanied by that wonderful animation, to bring it to life. It’s also interesting to know that reggae music actually wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for ska music being slowed down, and that also two-tone and ska punk both found their origins in ska.
This is a truly engaging film that is easy yet interesting to watch. It’s split into sections, looking at specific aspects of the genre like “skanking” (the very limb-orientated dance); the horn section (in particular, how in magazine photos they would often hold their horns to show it’s a ska band); and the DIY ethic of the genre – from posters to merchandise, bands would do pretty much everything themselves, such as designing logos, posters for shows and more, as cheaply as possible.
It’s fascinating that many consider 90s ska to have been brought to the forefront of the mainstream market due to No Doubt signing to a major label (Interscope Records) and releasing their hit album, Tragic Kingdom – which interestingly wasn’t very ska in style but due to their roots in the genre, helped highlight it to the masses.
I can’t recommend this documentary highly enough – whether you’re into ska or not, if you’re interested in music, this is a film you can learn a lot from.
We also learn that others had a big impact on the genre – Goldfinger were entered into the Guinness Book of World Records for playing 385 gigs in a single year; The Mighty Mighty Bosstones’ made an appearance in the cult movie, Clueless; and the Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater games introduced ska to a new generation too.
The film looks further into the “ska scene” and how instrumental live shows were, not only for bands and their friendships but the fans and creating shared experiences too. Additionally, despite touring extensively, money for ska bands was often in short supply due to the number of members in a band, but often small indie labels would release compilation CDs to showcase some of their band’s best work, to generate further interest in them. A lot of these smaller indie labels would operate as mail order services.
One of the most postive and interesting things about ska is the unity within the genre – black and white people would work in bands together, in harmony, so if anyone demonstrated any racism at shows, bands wouldn’t stand for it, however fights would frequently break out at shows as a result. This is one of the main reasons that the black and white checkers became a thing of ska. Also, there are a fair few women in genre and they address how these women would often have to hold their own with their strong characters and no-nonsense attitudes.
Unfortunately, by the turn of the millennium, as major labels had almost made ska a parody of itself, the ska bubble burst and the scene had become saturated with similar bands. As a result, people started to turn their backs to it and bands themselves started adapting to new sounds and dropping their horn sections.
There will always be a subculture for ska – just like with punk rock – but it’s not as mainstream as it was in the 90s. However, there is a bit of nostalgia resurge for ska at the moment (as well as 90s music in general), so whilst bands like Less Than Jake and Reel Big Fish are making new music ,they have a lot of fans reliving their youths by coming to shows. That said, across Mexico, Japan and Europe there is still a lot of love for ska and there’s hope for a ska revival in the near future, as the world could use some positivity right now.
I can’t recommend this documentary highly enough – whilst I like ska, it’s not a genre I know tons about but whether you’re into it or not, if you’re interested in music, this is a film you can learn a lot from, not only about the genre and it’s origins but from first-hand accounts of the scene during the 1990s, in an engaging and humourous way. Plus, you actually find yourself absorbed in the music itself – in fact I’ve had the playlist from the movie (below) on repeat ever since!
‘Pick It Up! – Ska in the 90s’ is out now and can be ordered/downloaded from the official website – https://www.skamovie.com/shop-1
Listen to the ‘Pick It Up! – Ska in the 90s’ official playlist on Spotify
We hope you’ve enjoyed our review! Have you seen this SKAcumentary yet? What did you think of it? Are you as much of a fan as us? What would you rate it out of 5? Please leave your thoughts in a comment or via our social media.