Behind the Lens: An Interview with the Director of The Magic Gang Doc ‘4700 Miles’
Here's what happened when The Magic Gang flew to record in Jamaica to be surprised by Sly & Robbie. Casual. Director Ben Lankester caught it all on film.
The Magic Gang with Sly & Robbie
A year ago, London-based filmmaker Ben Lankester had never even heard of The Magic Gang. But when he was offered to do a short-form documentary about the band’s trip from England to Jamaica, thanks to Converse Rubber Tracks he knew immediately that it was a story he wanted to tell. See Lankester had grown up on the UK’s southern coast too, just about 30-minutes from the guys’ home in Brighton. He knew he could make that beach look beautiful and he was excited about the calling of the Caribbean.
The story wasn’t going to be a matter of life or death. It wasn’t some grandiose battle. From the start, it needed to be a human story: a slice of life that would be visually stunning and take the viewer on a journey. What Lankester produced was a juxtaposition of cultural epicenters for art and music: two different cities by the sea, 4,700 Miles apart. The journey took the young Brits to record at Tuff Gong International, the most legendary recording studio in Kingston. Bob Marley had opened the original location of the studio in 1965. To this day, its most recent incarnation on Marcus Garvey Drive is home to the same mixing board that Marley used to record his albums.
When The Magic Gang arrived at Tuff Gong, the pressure was on for both the band and the filmmaker. The musicians were sticklers in the studio and Lankester, well he’s a stickler for natural light and authentic moments. The experience was a two-fold test at seizing the moment. The most intense of those moments was when the iconic rhythmic section Sly & Robbie surprised the band to produce their two new tracks. Dating back to the 70s, the musicians are widely recognized for playing alongside reggae legend Peter Tosh. The duo later carried on to produce genre-defining sounds of reggae, dancehall, and dub, while also extending their sensibilities to British rock vocalists like Sting and Mick Jagger. This alignment of sounds and background merged well with The Magic Gang, whose easy-going spiritual-soul-rock-n-roll could be enjoyed on a beach or in a loft.
We spoke to 31-year-old director Ben Lankester about his experience at Tuff Gong International, trying to tell a story void of clichés and why it’s worth it to wait for that golden hour at sunset.
Noisey: So there’s an obvious parallel between the beaches in Brighton and Jamaica throughout the piece. Were you going for this sort of dual visual representation?
Ben Lankester: The initial pull for everyone involved was the contrast between the two cities. The Brighton music scene is famously interesting. It’s one of those places, like Manchester, where there is a great musical heritage. We really wanted to contrast that with the equally prestigious scene in Kingston at Tuff Gong and the history related to that studio. I knew that visually I could make Brighton look good, and going to Jamaica, that’s a piece of cake!
For people who are stumbling upon this who don’t have a perspective on Brighton, what is that characteristic charm or personality?
The guys say at the top of the film that it’s a place that allows people to be creative. Even away from music, Brighton allows you to be and express yourself in whatever way you want and be an individual. That’s something that certainly comes across with the guys in Magic Gang and the music scene there. They don’t have to follow the people that have come before. They can establish their own identity.
When you first met these guys did you have a story planned? It’s more than just a “tale of two cities,” right?
We wanted it to be so much more than that, but it was always going to be something where that was all fed from the band. These guys are brand new to the industry, have this opportunity and are grabbing it with both hands. My favorite parts of the film are the travel sections, as they’re getting in the car and arriving at the airport. These guys are 20, 21, they’re young kids. A lot of them hadn’t left Europe before, so this was a big deal. There was a certain amount of nerves there, this whole journey and trying something unique in a totally different environment. That was always the plot of the story.
To me, they appeared modest but still had a sense of urgency…
They’re laid back, but they aren’t lazy. They’re ambitious, their attitude is refreshing and they speak genuinely, there was no sort of diva-ness there. They’re a proper group of four musicians that are in it together. No one there has any ambition other than making great music. It was refreshing. They don’t have a frontman, you could argue that Kristian [Smith] and Jack [Kaye] are as a duo, Beatles style. But neither one of them wants that attention.
Obviously you can’t speak for others, but do you think this location was a good fit for them?
Kristian is a big reggae fan. Angus [Taylor] said they wanted to do it because it was the least obvious vibe that people would expect to have influence over their music. When we were over there in the studio, their music did have that laid back sort of airy-beachy-twangy guitar sound and a sort of dirtiness that fit the whole Tuff Gong vibe. The scene at sunset, the night before they went into the studio, Kristian said that he wanted it to have a dirty-rough-Tuff-Gong-sound, nothing too clean and polished. I think that perfectly suits their style of recording music and that fed into their attitude in the studio. At times, I almost wanted more drama, because you’re making a film. But there wasn’t, in a good way. The determination made it interesting.
I was thinking to myself that it really is fortunate that the person who shot this took a very cinematic approach. There were some really nice cues that did give a sense of comfort: the planes taking off, the coconuts being prepared, the silhouettes over the skyline. If not there really wasn’t any tension to heighten the story to rope people in…
Totally. I hope the film is reflective of the band. I hope when people get to the end that they take away from it that there wasn’t some big drama; I want it to give people a good feeling.
How did it feel shooting in Tuff Gong International?
The bits where I felt the most pressure making the film were when the band first went into the studio and then when Sly & Robbie came into the studio. Those are the moments where you’re getting genuine reactions and there’s no second chance. I’m quite proud of the moment when they’re in the van and it feels like a football team on the way to the big game. That’s the feeling I wanted to create. As the music drops and they enter for the first time, they’re looking around and taking it all in, they’re speechless. That was the feeling we all had when we walked in. The relationship with Bob Marley, this is serious. I’ve actually never been to Abbey Road, which is ironic because I live in London, but I’d imagine it’s a similar thing because it’s so steeped in history that you can’t help but be blown away just being in there.
I’ve been to Abbey Road and I did the hacky road-crossing photo. I’d imagine the locals hate it.
[Laughs.] I’d imagine that Abbey Road is a bit more of a touristy place, whereas Tuff Gong is so out of the way, it’s not a touristy type of attraction. There was an amazing man in there from back in the day. He would take out equipment and show it to the guys and explain what songs the gear was used on. It has this retro feel to it. You have that sense that you’re privileged to be there.
Did the band seem outside their comfort zone?I’d like to say yes, but to be honest, not really. It’s exactly like it happens in the film; they walk in and really sort of take it in. Then the engineer says, “Do you guys wanna start making some noise?” Then they just started playing. They had a job to do. As soon as they picked up their instruments, they were on it. I was sitting back and watching it all unfold. We shot for two days and they did two tracks.
There was one point where Jack was sitting by the board and he said, “It’s a bit jarring.” Was he talking about the song or the entire situation?
Jack is genuinely talking about the experience. Maybe it was a pressure thing, Jack is more sensitive maybe, and when he’s playing, he really wants to do a good job. He’s always asking if it’s good enough and offering to do another take.
The story of Magic Gang’s trip goes from a Monday to Monday, beach-to-beach, ocean-to-ocean, it’s all very balanced. I appreciated that.
We deliberately wanted it to so that when that second Monday comes around it’s saying, “It’s Monday again! They’re getting back on with it.” We have them back in the rehearsal room on the last day, and they’re back making music together. Sure, they’ve had this experience, but they’re still just four guys in a band making music in a room or on a stage. I want people to feel like they’ve been on a journey. Without that separation of days, they can’t gauge it. People know what a week is. Hopefully people take away what an adventure it was in such a short space of time.
How did they hit off with Sly & Robbie as producers? How did you want to use them in the piece?
When we first talked about the film, we said that Sly & Robbie just needed to be an added amazing moment in there, a bonus. If we took them out altogether, people should still like the film based on these four guys journey to Jamaica. It allowed me to focus on the guys as characters. I like the way it fits there as a surprise, and they had no idea! Funny enough, the day before we left for Kingston, the producer John [Bannister] and I kept saying how we wanted to know if Kristian, who is a massive reggae fan, is a big fan of Sly & Robbie. Kristian was flicking through his records in his home and was having a conversation with my camera assistant about reggae. He said he liked to listen to, “really good stuff, like Sly & Robbie kinda stuff.” It was amazing! Not only did he know who they were, but also referenced them in a positive way in a very casual conversation, off camera. Because of that, I knew that Kristian was the guy that the camera had to be on when they entered the studio.
Was Christian able to keep his composure when they walked in?The other guys knew them less, so they were way more vocal. Kristian just sort of stood there like “Holy shit” and didn’t know what to do because he was meeting his heroes. Kristian says to the band, “You’re playing with the most famous rhythm section in reggae, you better not fuck this up.” That was one of those moments where I was nervous, going from the harsh Jamaican sun outside, coming inside and quickly changing all of my camera settings to make sure you can see in the dark studio.
So all of the guys are engaging and Kristian’s mouth is hanging open. How was the chemistry between the band and the producers?
They’re cool characters, Jamaican heroes, not the kind of guys to massively open up though. Sly is the jokier guy who very much took a backseat; Robbie is more of a producer. At first, they were figuring each other out. Robbie took some time to get a feel for the record. By the end of the film he really loved it. At the end they’re all recording that harmony together, and Robbie is the control room and he didn’t know what was coming! The music grew on him and you could see it. By the end, it’s very much like they’re just buddies making music together. It was nice watching that transition.
You seemed to use a lot of crisp natural sound, which really helped the film. How important of a tool is that for you?
Sound design is what makes it a film. The idea at the beginning of the process was that it needed to be a short film, not just “content.” We were confident that we could make it look beautiful, but to make it sound beautiful is a whole other ballgame. Simon Little, who is the sound designer, he and I worked together for a long time trying to make that right. Even at the beginning with the swallows in Brighton, the flapping of the wings.
What was the best part of doing this?
I’m a sucker for natural light and I’m a photographer as well. I’m obsessed with capturing the best light and daylight, the golden hour. And in Jamaica, there’s nothing like it. Our local producer had a great spot overlooking the city. The sunset was amazing and it was a particularly special moment at the end of the first day there. It was a genuine conversation between the four guys and then they all look at the sunset. It’s my favorite shot in the film.
Derek Scancarelli studied documentary filmmaking in New York. Nerd-out with him on Twitter.