There are certain things that are quintessentially Miami, like cafecitos at a board meeting and a doctor sporting a guayabera. Now add Rakontur Media Studio's rapidly expanding library of South Florida-focused documentaries to that running list.
For over a decade, director Billy Corben and producer Alfred Spellman have built their very own filmic brand by mining our region's swampy, polyglot history for strange, dangerous, and controversial stories. Gritty slices of local Floridiana such as Cocaine Cowboys, Cocaine Cowboys 2: Hustlin' with the Godmother, and The U have catapulted Corben, Spellman, and their Miami-based media studio to the forefront of the non-fiction film industry.
And the newest entry in the Rakontur filmography is weed smuggler epic Square Grouper: The Godfathers of Ganja, slated for release on DVD next Tuesday. Just one of four films by Corben and Spellman scheduled to hit the streets in 2011, Square Grouper recently premiered at the South by Southwest music, film, and interactive festival in March before setting out on an extensive monthlong US screening tour.
The film examines South Florida's out-of-control marijuana trafficking rings of the 1970s, following notorious 305-affiliated players like the Ethiopian Zion Coptic Church, the Black Tuna Gang, and the insular outlaw population of the Everglades City fishing village. So it was appropriate that Corben decided to seek out an equally notorious (albeit law-abiding) Miami character -- Andrew Yeomanson, AKA DJ Le Spam -- to write the doc's musical score.
Yet prior to this project, Spam had never written a single piece of music for the screen, although he did have a longstanding habit of incorporating multimedia elements into his live shows. For one, way back in the '90s when he and his band, Spam Allstars, would play for small-ish crowds at Rose's and the South Beach Pub, his friend and noted local artist Kevin Arrow would show up to project customized psychedelic 8 and 16mm film loops. For another, when the Allstars scored residency at Hoy Como Ayer on Calle Ocho, a young street artist by the name of David LeBatard (now well-known as Lebo) would "animate these little doodles on the overhead projector," Spam recalls. Next thing you know, he and his band would just start rolling old episodes of Que Pasa U.S.A.? at gigs. How much more Miami can it get?
And so, when Corben first approached Spam about doing the Square Grouper score, the musician may have been somewhat inexperienced. But he knew he was ready. Admittedly, however, it was an extremely arduous process, "three months of never leaving my house, except for gigs," he remembers, "and tracking, mixing, or editing for eight to ten hours a day."
Looking to ease the burden a bit, Spam enlisted the services of over 30 Miami musicians with expertise in almost every genre imaginable. "You have the university churning out these great horn players and jazz musicians," he explains. "And then you have all these people from Cuba who are highly-trained fucking stunt musicians."
Marshalling this musical army and his own gift of translating the visual world into sound, Spam went way beyond the Latin funk for which he's famous. "There is an inherent rhythm [running] through [everything]," Spam says. "There's always some sort of a pulse there."
And whether composing music to accompany a lawyer describing some arcane legality or a scene set against a swampy rural landscape, he found the sounds that matched the strange, dangerous, and controversial vibe of Square Grouper's particular slice of pot-smuggling Florida history.
-- Eric Garcia
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Square Grouper will be released on DVD April 19.