An opening image in Stepping Razor -- Red X, a disappointing biography of reggae legend Peter Tosh, is graffiti on a Jamaican boulder reading "You are sound as a rock." Perhaps that was true of the late singer/ activist (1944-1987) -- would that it were of this sketchy documentary.
First-time writer/director Nicholas Campbell centers on excerpts from Tosh's tape-recorded diaries, which Tosh called "Red X Tapes" because of the ominous red X that frequently appeared after his signature on official documents. Sometimes perceptive, sometimes incoherent, persuasive as well as paranoid, Tosh commented on his impoverished childhood, the mystical powers of ganja, his people's ills, South Africa, the devil, vampires, medicine men. Instead of recounting the narrative of his life, Tosh filed his scattershot impressions.
But Campbell doesn't flesh it out, instead linking the tapes to extended concert footage, unconvincing dramatic recreations, manipulative shots of the Jamaican landscape, and interviews thick with patois. This is a documentary without narration, and Tosh's complicated life is merely glanced at: his oppressive upbringing in Trenchtown, the barren ghetto of Kingston; his early career in Bob Marley's group, the Wailers; his emergent singing out about colonialism, apartheid, ganja; his unsolved murder. Talking heads claim that Tosh was killed because he wanted to buy a radio station and broadcast Rastafarian reggae music, but no evidence is presented. Many interviewees are stoned.
Frequently, so was Tosh. It's eerie to watch him babble in interviews, then become a prophet onstage, or to see him groove sincerely on Saturday Night Live while Mick Jagger preens showily beside him. But the movie doesn't explore these paradoxes. One interviewee equates Tosh with Malcolm X because both were revolutionary. Maybe so, but the movie -- a curious choice by the Museum of Fine Arts for Black History Month -- doesn't prove it.
Stepping Razor -- Red X will show Fridays, February 4-25, 8 p.m. at the Museum of Fine Arts, 1001 Bissonnet, 639-7515. It will also show at midnight March 11 & 12 at the River Oaks 3, 2009 West Gray, 524-2175. Not rated. 103 minutes.
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