Film Reviews

Dance Craze (1981) – Blu-ray Review

If someone brings up the name of Coventry, what would be the first thing that comes to mind? Possibly the story of Lady Godiva and Peeping Tom. Maybe the phrase ‘being sent to Coventry’, referring to somebody being ostracised. It could well be the Baedeker Raids which you associate with a mention of the city, the Luftwaffe’s bombing of the medieval centre of Coventry during the Blitz resulting in that concrete jungle of post-war Brutalist reconstruction.

However, there is much to shout about when it comes to the West Midlands’ second largest city, something which came to the fore when it was named the UK City of Culture 2021. While the actual legacy of the event has recently come to a rather unfortunate end, the actual year-long festival gave Coventry a platform from which it could shout about all its cultural contributions. One of these was its giving birth to a short-lived but hugely influential – not to mention highly-regarded – musical genre, known as ‘Two Tone’.

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The brainchild of Jerry Dammers, a Coventry resident from a young age, Two Tone was a fusion of Punk and Jamaican Ska, giving a unique sound which acted as a Trojan horse for lots of political and social commentary reflecting the time during which it was created. Dammers’ creation of the independent label 2Tone records reflected in its very name the multiracial composition of the bands involved, something which was so unusual at the time. Two Tone was very recently in the news again following the passing of Terry Hall, lead singer of The Specials, the group most closely associated with the musical style and the label.

When it comes to geographical association with a particular genre of music, a lot of the oxygen does tend to be taken up by Liverpool, all thanks to the ‘Merseybeat’ sensation which swept not across just the country, but also the globe in the ‘60s. However, Coventry has tried to do its best to keep the flame of Two Tone alive, with a 2-Tone Village and a whole room dedicated to it at the city’s Music Museum. Now we have the release by the BFI of the newly remastered version of the 1981 part-concert film, part-documentary about Two Tone: Dance Craze.

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To understand the roots of Two Tone’s inception, you have to first grasp what was happening at the time, with the specific set of circumstances affecting not just Coventry, but the UK as a whole. Integration following the influx of immigration – such as the Windrush Generation – in previous decades had not been an easy process, with racial tensions still being high throughout the 1970s. The inflammatory rhetoric by Enoch Powell in his infamous ‘Rivers of Blood’ in 1968 speech gave rise to a rise in far-right extremism, leading to the Battle of Lewisham in 1977, sparked by a National Front march being made in an ethnically diverse area of London which created a flashpoint.

In the media, programmes like Love Thy Neighbour – which ended a four-year run in 1976 – may have added to feelings of prejudice through its clumsy handling of race relations in its depiction of the relationship between a black couple and their bigoted, intolerant white neighbour. The year after the events in Lewisham, the controversial The Black And White Minstrel Show wrapped up two decades as a surprising and seemingly inexplicable mainstay of primetime broadcasting on the BBC. The past, as they say, is a different country, and they undoubtedly – not to mention regrettably – did things differently there.

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The country was also going through a massive upheaval in a number of other ways, with the 1978 ‘Winter of Discontent’, which saw disruption caused by widespread strikes in both public and private sectors, as well as massive unemployment and political turmoil leading to the effective collapse of the Labour Government, laying the way for Mrs Thatcher’s rise to power in the 1979 General Election, setting her on course for a head-on clash with the Trade Unions. This was taking place against a backdrop of racial tensions and the collapse of manufacturing across the country.

Coventry’s once-famous car-making industry – which saw it hailed as being the UK’s ‘Motor City’, boosted by an influx of migrant workers – began a marked decline in the 1970s. The Punk spirit embodied by the Sex Pistols’ cries of there being no future seemed to perfectly encapsulate the mood of the time, particularly amongst the youth, who saw their opportunities of employment dwindling, and infrastructure collapsing around them. Dammers’ fusion of two opposing musical styles took that Punk energy, and gave it a far more inclusive feel, bridging the racial divide and clearly showing that coexistence was possible.

Dance Craze was originally intended as being a documentary about Madness, but director Joe Massot quickly expanded its scope to encompass the wider Two Tone scene. As a result, it means we have a valuable snapshot of what was more than a craze, but a fully-fledged movement in youth culture. Being filmed from up on stage, rather than down in the audience as was the convention, means that Dance Craze has a frenetic, wild energy, capturing prime performances of The Specials, Bad Manners, Madness, The Beat, The Bodysnatchers and The Selecter.

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Far more of a document than a conventional documentary, Dance Craze is down in the belly of the beast, showing the power of Two Tone at its height. Lovingly restored for this Blu-ray release, a short featurette demonstrates just what a parlous state the feature was in, as many existing prints were faded or scratched. Great care and attention has been taken to make this not only look but also sound immaculate, with the soundtrack being presented in a Dolby Atmos version. If you want a contemporary look at the Two Tone phenomenon to complement the main feature, the disc has an episode of the BBC’s Arena strand, one that takes us behind the scenes and interviews key players as it happened.

Added into the mix are a number of unused and alternative takes of songs, footage which was left out of the final cut of the film, and adds extra value to this release. For Two Tone fans, this is a must-have, and for everyone else, this really is a much-needed introduction and exposure to a significant part of our musical heritage which perhaps sometimes fails to get the recognition it truly deserves. Perhaps the biggest shock of all comes in realising this is more than forty years old when you watch it. My advice? Enjoy yourself, it’s later than you think.

Dance Craze is out on Blu-ray on 27th March from BFI.

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