Peter Tosh, the great reggae artist who was murdered in his Jamaica home in 1987, had been making tape-recorded notes about his life shortly before his death. These stream-of-consciousness audiotapes were later recovered and, applied intermittently to the soundtrack of “Stepping Razor--Red X,” the new documentary (at the Nuart) about Tosh’s life, provide an eerie look at his innermost musings.
Written and directed by Nicholas Campbell, the film (Times-rated Mature) is a melange of re-enactments of Tosh’s death, interviews with family, friends, fellow musicians and journalists, and concert footage from throughout Tosh’s career. The footage begins with his association with Bob Marley and continues right up to the end, when, with his free-flowing yellow robes and thick crown of dreadlocks, he had the look of a messianic Rasta.
Tosh’s musical career, separated from its specifically Rastafarian trappings, follows a familiar, almost archetypal trajectory for rock superstars: Raised in poverty, he started out as a musician with his roots deep in folk tradition and ended up as a species of national myth. Tosh’s image as a kind of reggae Malcolm X was fueled not only by his own furious out-spokenness but also by his legions of acolytes and hangers-on. He carried on like someone doomed; he perceived the brutality he endured--from the police, mostly, but also from his own demons--as the wages of martyrdom.
One of his tapes quotes him as saying, “Peace is the diploma you get in the cemetery.” Tosh may have relished his messianic role, and the ganja he smoked and celebrated may have contributed to his own doomed martyr complex, but he wasn’t a poseur; he really did rankle the Jamaican authorities with his anti-apartheid wailings. The movie makes a spotty, Oliver Stone-like case for his murder being the result of a conspiracy involving governmental higher-ups. (The official murder motive was burglary.) A colleague interviewed in the film says that Tosh’s real ammunition was his lyrics, and, when Tosh is onstage, singing “Legalise It” or one of his other inflammatory anthems, you can understand how his music could be targeted as a provocation.
You can also understand how his rage could be picked up by white countercultures with no real connection to what he was railing against. His rebellion was converted around the world into something chic and readily consumable and yet his music still retains its power to shock. “Stepping Razor” is too worshipful to work as a full-scale character study but it’s a musical feast with jangly, fascinating psychosocial crosscurrents.