Unraveling a Reggae Mystery

Chris Flanagan talks Shella Record - A Reggae Mystery

12 mins read

Chris Flanagan’s Shella Record – A Reggae Mystery is an ode to obsession, tracing one man’s desire to uncover the identity of a mystery singer he first heard on a thrift-store audio purchase. Joined along the way by musical icons, sympathetic friends and even supernatural private investigators, Flanagan’s decade-long quest ends up having less to do with a single song than how a deep dive into a work of art can literally open up an entire world to be explored.

The journey takes him from Toronto to Kingston and throughout the U.S., connecting along the way with an entire community of like-minded seekers and singers that help him in his search. Flanagan never shies away from the naiveté underlying his task, yet thanks to his infectious enthusiasm, we as the viewers feel very much a part of his adventure.

Thanks to good-hearted assistance from remarkable characters, the audience is gifted with a welcome dive into the history of Jamaican music and production, finding along the way how one woman’s impassioned performance fills an integral if forgotten part in the history of the indelible music that is reggae.

POV spoke to Flanagan prior to the World Premiere of his film at Hot Docs 2019.

POV: Jason Gorber
CF: Chris Flanagan
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity

POV: Let’s start at the beginning. This all started with you finding a rare record in an unlikely place.

CF: I was at a thrift store in Cambridge, Ontario. It was just in a very small stack of 10-cent records and didn’t have a cover. It wasn’t something I was looking for, but for a dime I could take a gamble and try it out. The record is a compilation of reggae music by Various Artists. The majority are standard soul covers, mostly done by Toronto Reggae groups of the era. The second to last track is credited to Shella Record and it blew me away. I was not expecting that at all. It was unique, a jazz vocal accompanied by one of the hardest reggae backings you’ve ever heard.

POV: Were you on the lookout for such things?

I had finished art school and had come to Canada to visit my girlfriend. I had quite a bit of time to kill and I was just going to stores looking for records, looking for junk. It was just one of those incredible digging moments.

POV: Which led you on to an eight-year journey?

CF: The actual process of making the film has been over a decade, so discovery was even earlier than that! It was something I sat on for a little while. I was asking questions about the identity of the lead singer and early in the game, I thought it would be interesting to document the process. I had no notion of where that was going to lead—it could have been a Toronto singer who I found in half an hour or something—but it turned out to be a much more epic adventure than I’d bargained for.

POV: Searching for Sugarman is another of these “artist quest” films. Of course, Rodriguez wasn’t lost at all, just out of touch for those under the media restrictions in South Africa. In your case Shella Record was actually lost!

CF: Yes, genuinely lost for everybody, her family included.

POV: Which means you are in real time documenting an adventure where you don’t know where it’s going. Could you talk about moments where you weren’t certain you were on the right track?

CF: This process was overwhelming at times. I’m a visual artist, not a filmmaker. My practice has incorporated aspects of music, subcultures, folklore and music history, into installations where I might make a short film piece, but documentary is certainly not my background. Had I not entered into this with a lot of naiveté I might not actually have gone through with it. It started out with a cheap camera that I bought on Kijiji for $100 and had friends film me throughout this process. The intrigue and mystery around it made me want to delve deeper. Eventually, there was just reams and reams of footage, and a lot of it was just crap that didn’t go anywhere. Beyond that, there was the challenge of just trying to make this film with no budget.

POV: It sounds like the making of the film was even more hellish and time consuming than you expected.

CF: The whole post-production process was a challenge just in terms of getting funding to edit the thing. I cut together a very rough assembly of what I thought the narrative was, and then sought funding to try and find a professional editor because I realized it was far beyond my capabilities. I really wanted to collaborate with an editor with a Caribbean background. In terms of the art aspect, with the use of models and so forth, that didn’t really come into play until the edit.

POV: The inclusion of your models allows your own art to play an explicit role in the story beyond your own quest.

CF: I always saw this as about my search for Shella, and not a documentary about Shella. That was something that I felt a lot more comfortable with as a white outsider, as opposed to someone trying to tell this woman’s story.

POV: You got some usually quite reticent people to open up. Was it that your enthusiasm was infectious, or your naiveté was such that they felt bad for you?

CF: [Laughs] It could be a combination. I approached it with genuine enthusiasm and love for the music. There wasn’t a financial imperative and I wasn’t trying to make a quick buck off it or something like that. People were incredibly generous, hooking me up with a lot of contacts, which proved to be incredibly helpful, especially leading on to Jamaica.

POV: Not everyone was so generous. Do you still have Monica on Eglinton West hating you?

CF: I haven’t been back! It was just more naïveté, with me going in there and asking questions of this woman, who is a very established business owner in the area, and doesn’t really owe me anything.

POV: Yet people who are giants in the industry did find time for you. What shifted in your own approach between just walking into a local place and having the attitude you brought to those places in Jamaica?

CF: I honestly don’t know if my approach did change very much. I think just maybe just certain people gravitated towards me and certain people didn’t. Having Bunny Lee onside opened up a huge amount of doors in Jamaica. He’s incredibly well respected and would be constantly on the phone handing me over to some legend. I was trying for months to try to get a contact for Bunny, couldn’t find it, and ultimately I found him in the Jamaican white pages. These guys are just so accessible, it’s ridiculous.

POV: Jamaican culture at the best of times has been one that paves over its history. What was it like being in that cab tracing that history in some of the more dodgy areas of Kingston?

CF: I was shitting myself, to be perfectly honest. In Waterhouse, I really felt like I’d made a mistake. I don’t want to play up the sensational aspects of Kingston, Jamaica, but Waterhouse is a tough place and not a lot of tourists go there.

Going to King Tubby’s studio was something that I really wanted to do; it felt like a sacred site. Traditionally the powers that be in Jamaica looked down on reggae even though it’s their largest cultural export. They haven’t given the artists that pioneered it their due, especially in terms of roots reggae and dub.

POV: The film is finally made and you get to show it to people and get generations to come to appreciate this woman’s music. What does it feel like now that this part of the journey is finished?

CF: It feels fantastic. There were times when I didn’t even know if I had an ending to the film. It feels incredible to have finished it, and to have it screened at a festival like Hot Docs is a dream come true.

Shella Record – A Reggae Mystery screens:
-Mon, Apr. 29 at 9:15 PM at TIFF Lightbox
-Wed, May 1 at 12:45 PM at Cineplex Scotiabank
-Fri, May 3 at 3:15 PM at Cineplex Scotiabank

Visit POV Hot Docs Hub for more coverage from this year’s festival

Jason Gorber is a film journalist and member of the Toronto Film Critics Association. He is the Managing Editor/Chief Critic at ThatShelf.com and a regular contributor for POV Magazine, RogerEbert.com and CBC Radio. His has written for Slashfilm, Esquire, The Toronto Star, The Globe and Mail, The National Post, Screen Anarchy, HighDefDigest, Birth.Movies.Death, IndieWire and more. He has appeared on CTV NewsChannel, CP24, and many other broadcasters. He has been a jury member at the Reykjavik International Film Festival, Calgary Underground Film Festival, RiverRun Film Festival, TIFF Canada's Top 10, Reel Asian and Fantasia's New Flesh Award. Jason has been a Tomatometer-approved critic for over 20 years.

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