Stewart Copeland’s The Rhythmatist

I was a fan of the band The Police in high school—to be fair, I still am—and hungry for everything they’d made, including their solo work individually. I got Andy Summers’s experimental albums with Robert Fripp, I listened along with half the world to Sting’s solo debut, but Stewart Copeland was always my most compelling draw.

The Rhythmatist, released in 1985, was a kind of encapsulation of Stewart’s trek across Africa, visiting musicians and tribes from East to West, recording their music and composing songs as he went. I got the album on cassette (it was my preferred format just before I started collecting CDs exclusively) as soon as I knew about it. I loved just about all of it, and consumed it obsessively as I do everything I love. I hoped desperately to see the film that was attached to this weird, wonderful soundtrack, but it never came to Tucson theaters or video outlets, and I let go of the idea of ever seeing it. Until today.

The film was a strange avant garde film project, something he said he wanted to resemble a music album, with no clear plot or story that people would want to watch repeatedly in the way they listened to music. I chanced on an upload of the film to YouTube, and threw it on the living room TV immediately.

It’s a bit like Stewart himself: strange, goofy, intense, energetic. It’s full of infectious and odd low-bit percussive synth melodies layered over recorded African drums and voices as well as Ray Lema’s vocals and Stewart’s own drumming. He spends time with African residents, drumming with them, dancing with them, taking in ceremonies and rituals. It feels a little exploitative for me now, with Stewart feeding us interpretations of his experiences, and no Africans get to talk about their music or their lives. That could be my own sensitivity coming into play. But it’s a product of its time, and not a documentary proper.

There’s another video of Stewart being interviewed about the film and music, which is also worth a look if you’re at all into either or both.