The music-history documentary can be such a self-congratulatory and/or hagiographic venture, often employing recognizable talking heads to convince an audience that despite a band or an artist’s obvious myopia, their music is so revolutionary that they can’t truly be faulted. Sometimes, that argument sticks, and other times, these documentaries end up inadvertently (or in some cases, subversively) showcasing how hypnotizing and corrosive it can be when an artist’s work becomes globally famous. With a band like Cymande, however, there’s no need to worry on either front. Their music is entrancing enough to convince any viewer that this is no desperate puff piece, while their story is grounded enough that outsized egos never threaten the proceedings.
Tim MacKenzie-Smith’s brisk and efficient film charts the historical context of the all-Black band forming and playing in London while the hatred and sadism of the National Front peppers newspaper headlines and puts both white supremacist ideologies and police brutality against Black Londoners into a stark spotlight. Where many bands, understandably, channeled this violence and pain into music that reflected an energetically pugnacious response, Cymande elected to concoct celebrations of diverse artistry and abstract positivity. Getting It Back thoroughly documents the band’s enduring optimism and creativity, diligently combining the aging band members’ contemporary accounts of their backstory with various influential musicians inspired by their work in decades since it was first released.
As their star rose during the mid-1970s, Cymande saw great things in their future; they enjoyed a raucous reception in America supporting Al Green, and recorded an entire follow-up to their self-titled LP while on tour. However, returning to Britain afterwards swiftly reminded them that they couldn’t expect the same exuberance in their hometown. English record labels, promoters and DJs (pretty much exclusively the white ones, that is) refused or ignored their requests to translate their American success to British soundscapes, and as the band members describe it, their potential vanished almost overnight. As they explain this head-spinning change in fortune, the film takes care to highlight how unfair and disturbing this thinly-veiled intolerance has proven, with many rather saddening shots capturing these men’s reckonings with their flattened dreams from decades earlier.
Happily, the film generously heaps on the but-wait-the-story’s-not-over quality of their resurgence as a brilliantly prolific source of hip-hop samples, which saw many tracks from their self-titled 1972 album grow exponentially in popularity in the 1980s and 1990s. As the film covers this reclamation of Cymande’s grace and ingenuity and traces it all the way to a triumphant recent performance in Brixton, Getting It Back proves to be a heartily good time with incisive and well-presented messages about music’s power to expediently foster acceptance, community, optimism, creativity, and political progressivism. After all, Britain’s establishment wouldn’t have tried to squash their clearly marketable artistry back in the 70s if it wasn’t something of a threat. Thankfully, that effort only succeeded temporarily, and as Getting It Back declares with momentous and exuberant affection, Cymande’s music has found a massive audience who will continue to carry its message forward.