In a poignant scene from the movie Bazodee, struggling singer/songwriter Lee De Leon (played by Trinidadian soca superstar Machel Montano) shares with his romantic interest, Anita, his grandmother's inspirational love of music, especially calypsos by the late Lord Kitchener. "Every time Kitchener would win a crown [a reference to the iconic calypsonian's numerous victories at Trinidad carnival's Road March competition] she would run out in the street and ring a bell; I want to write songs that make people feel like doing that."
Directed by Peabody Award-winning, multiple Emmy nominee Todd Kessler (Nickelodeon's Blue's Clues) and set against the multi-colored masquerade and joyous soca and steel pan sounds intrinsic to Trinidad's carnival, Bazodee is a Bollywood-influenced musical based on Montano's songs. Montano's Lee De Leon, an Afro-Trinidadian soca singer, returns home from London disheartened by his stalled career; he meets Anita Panchouri (Natalie Perera) the daughter of a wealthy Indian businessman (veteran Indian actor Kabir Bedi) who encourages him to continue. Montano rerecorded many of his songs for Bazodee as duets between Lee and Anita, to portray their dizzying love (bazodee, in Trinidadian parlance) for each other despite her engagement to Bharat (Staz Nair, Game of Thrones) and the existing divisions between segments of Trinidad's dominant African and Indian populations.
Bazodee's screenplay, written by Claire Ince, was inspired by the love and harmony themes woven throughout Montano's carnival hits, from 2000's "Real Unity" (a soca adaptation of Pakistani singer Nazia Hassan's Aap Jaisa Koi) featuring Indo-Trinidadian chutney singer Drupatee Ramgoonai to 2016's "I Forget," a compelling blend of soca, Indian tassa drumming and EDM undercurrents. The only song written specifically for the film, "I Forget" is the first single from its soundtrack scheduled for digital release on Montano's Monk Music label to coincide with Bazodee's Sept. 14 opening in Trinidad and Tobago.
With Bazodee, Montano has become the first Caribbean artist to star in a non-documentary feature film showcasing his music. "I have never been involved in a project of this scope and it has been quite a challenge," Montano, 41, tells Billboard in a phone interview from his Los Angeles home. "We struggled to create and finance this movie, it took nearly 10 years and there were many times we felt like giving up."
Shot entirely in Trinidad and its smaller sister island Tobago (T&T) Bazodee's $2 million budget (expensive by Caribbean film standards) was funded through various private investors, corporate sponsors and T&T government agencies. The Trinidad and Tobago Film Company (TTFC), under their Production Expenditure Rebate Program, an incentive for more films to be shot on the islands, provided up to 55 percent rebates on expenses for qualifying local labor, 35 percent on other local expenditures. "Getting sponsorship took a lot of selling because we don't have a strong film culture here," says Trinidad-based Lorraine O'Connor, the local line producer for Bazodee. "Bazodee is groundbreaking for T&T's film industry because it is locally produced, stars a local artist and is based around local music and events."
The Export Import Bank of Trinidad and Tobago (EXIMBANK) and First Citizens Bank Trinidad and Tobago facilitated loans to Montano's administrative company, Xtatik Ltd. Executive Producers, Machel and his mother Elizabeth Montano also made significant monetary contributions to Bazodee, the first project under Montano's newly formed Monk Pictures.
"Machel's commitment to the film played a tremendous role in getting the financial support, because we were making a soca musical without a major actor or a well-known executive producer," says Claire Ince, who produced Bazodee with her husband Ancil McKain (for their Brooklyn-based Indiepelago Productions) with Steven Brown. "Bazodee is part of Machel's mission to take soca worldwide."
Throughout his 34-year career Montano has worked tirelessly to enhance soca's international profile. He signed to Atlantic Records in 2000 then relocated to Sweden to collaborate with hit-making producers there; the intended crossover album for Atlantic remains unreleased. Montano's diligence has borne fruit as the mainstream has slowly, but with increasing regularity, taken notice. He's toured the US with Pitbull, won Best International Performance for Ministry of Road at the 2014 Soul Train Awards, Meghan Trainor and Rihanna are fans and Ariana Grande, Angela Hunte, Major Lazer, Shaggy and Sean Paul are collaborators.
Bazodee's potential to further popularize soca among uninitiated audiences has earned comparisons to The Harder They Come, the 1972 Jamaican film (and accompanying various artist soundtrack on Island Records) that helped establish an international fan base for reggae. However, Bazodee's nearest celluloid counterpart is Prince's Purple Rain. Made on a budget of $7.2 million (over $16 million, with inflation) Prince's label Warner Brothers was initially wary of supporting his acting ambitions. Like Prince, Montano lacked acting experience when Bazodee began filming yet both saw movies as essential to elevating their careers. Purple Rain was shot in the environment that nurtured Prince's career ascent, his hometown of Minneapolis, which parallels Bazodee's depiction of various carnival scenarios that brought Montano to prominence.
Like Purple Rain the Bazodee cast is dominated by people of color, a point emphasized by Susanne Bohnet, CEO of Serafini Pictures (Bazodee's US distributor) at its US premiere held at Manhattan's PlayStation Theater on July 27, remarkably, the same date Purple Rain opened throughout America in 1984. "Serafini Pictures will bring relevant stories from a viewpoint that has nothing in common with the white supremacy of Hollywood. Bazodee is a passion project of many; it's a film we're very proud of," Bohnet stated.
"Purple Rain is the story of many people's lives, love triumphs all; I wrote You with my father in 2005, saying the same thing as I Would Die 4 U, 'ready to go to the end in the toughest times'", explains Montano, who was eight when Purple Rain debuted. "That message from me to my loved ones is the message of the spirit to us. I look for deep spiritual meaning in my music and in reflecting on Purple Rain I see that need to understand and love each other more."
Despite soca's limited recognition beyond the Caribbean, Montano's exhaustive efforts surrounding Bazodee move the entire genre closer to perhaps one day reaching such elevated positions. "I spent many hours working on the sound track and the film's score to give soca the broadest possible representation, embracing African music, dancehall, EDM as we move forward," notes Montano. "A lot of sacrifices were made by everyone involved in Bazodee; hopefully it will take us all to the next level."
Bazodee opens in Canada today (Sept. 21), following recent screenings in over 100 theaters throughout the United States in August.