Credit: Sarah Lancaster
Before We Vanish by Joshua Minsoo Kim Featured Film

Getting It Back: The Story of Cymande — Tim MacKenzie-Smith

April 3, 2024

Nearly the entire 90-minute runtime of Tim MacKenzie-Smith’s Getting It Back: The Story Of Cymande is filled with the titular band’s music. This never feels like a bad move, as the UK group’s brand of soul and funk is some of the liveliest to ever be recorded. Even for first-time listeners, it’ll be obvious how smooth their music is; as band members share about their lives, their songs prove both non-disruptive and immediately irresistible, every groove suffused with an effortless cool that’ll ensnare you if you let it. This decision also gives the documentary a constant laid-back feel, letting its talking heads-heavy nature feel significantly more bearable — one can only hear other musicians gush about the music for so long, so at least these songs are always there to drift into when the film threatens to stagnate. This approach does, however, present a glaring question: Why spend time watching this doc when you could just listen to the albums instead? What is being done with the chosen medium?

At first, MacKenzie-Smith manages to make watching his film compelling: We hear about the band’s origins, how they were all self-taught musicians, and the early stages of them forming and practicing together. Their live performances were fiery, and any studio recording would need to capture that same energy. This sets the stage for a palpable drama when we learn that the music’s potency could be met with coldness. “We weren’t allowed an [era of Black British music],” we learn. This is why Cymande would end up finding more success in the States, playing at the Apollo and opening for Al Green. It hints at a political dimension that’s interesting, especially as the film teases how their music was always aiming for something more radical, but this thread is abandoned shortly after being mentioned.

It’s roughly 30 minutes into Getting It Back that the film starts making the meaning of its title abundantly clear; MacKenzie-Smith only really wants to show how surprising it is that the band’s music could be popular today, decades after the band originally called it quits. The film switches its focus to how songs from their self-titled debut, especially “Bra,” became a staple of various genres, but especially hip-hop — Cymande were sampled by De La Soul and the Fugees, but UK acts too. At first, this structural gambit intrigues: to trace the lifespan of the music itself attests to its timelessness and endless exploratory terrain. But the film eventually becomes so far removed from the band as to be habitually uninsightful — there’s little to be gained here that one couldn’t glean from the band’s Wikipedia page. Where are the privileged, in-depth stories of the band during their second and third albums? What were they up to afterwards? What was the process like for getting the band back together?

These questions come so easily to mind precisely because what’s presented on screen is regularly tedious: producers and artists, including ones who helped bring Cymande to wider public consciousness, are tasked with talking about the music. There’s a fairly low ceiling on how engrossing it can be to hear people speak in superlatives, especially when the images being presented are so banal. At one point, the camera focuses on someone scrolling through YouTube; elsewhere, and even worse, there’s a screenshot of the most-played Cymande songs on Spotify, followed by someone sharing a song from the app to a friend via text. The idea is to get a sense of how wide-reaching and enduring their music is, but the series of climaxes that MacKenzie-Smith uses is pathetic: There’s a montage of covers from people around the world that’s edited with zero panache, and then shots of the band at a reunion concert. That we don’t get to see the show play out for a satisfying length of time is damning evidence that MacKenzie-Smith has the wrong priorities here. More than anything, his good intentions are thwarted by cowardice — he doesn’t trust in Cymande’s music to be enough. Mackenzie-Smith is far more interested in blandly explaining obvious revelations than actually revealing them through the strength of images and song.

DIRECTOR: Tim MacKenzie-Smith;  DISTRIBUTOR: Abramorama;  IN THEATERS: April 5;  RUNTIME: 1 hr. 33 min.

Originally published as part of SXSW Film Festival 2022 — Dispatch 1.