I first discovered ska in college through my friend Dave. Sure I’d heard ska music in the past, but meeting Dave was when I really heard ska. The album that really drew me in was the Teen Beef split 7″ featuring Reel Big Fish and Goldfinger. I was hooked and I couldn’t get enough. I listened to all the bands I could find, I coveted the multitude of ska compilations that were out there, and I just had to listen to all the Moon Ska artists. Ska music was as much a part of my identity in the ’90s as it was part of the ’90s identity. The documentary Pick It Up! Ska in the ’90s, is a wonderful look at that time.
I am all in on this documentary, so much so that I backed it on Kickstarter the moment I knew of its existence. Pick It Up! is an unabashed love letter to ska, specifically the third wave ska movement that emerged in the late ’80s/early ’90s, and tells the tale of a genre of music with a passionate fan base and cultural impact that was generally overlooked and easily dismissed by the public at large.
The director, Taylor Morden, was able to wrangle up a veritable “who’s who” of the ska community for this documentary. Tim Armstrong, lead singer of Rancid and former member of Operation Ivy, serves as the movie’s narrator. Aaron Barrett (Reel Big Fish), Bucket (The Toasters/Moon Ska Records), Chris DeMakes (Less Than Jake), Karina Deniké (Dance Hall Crashers), Mike Park (Bruce Lee Band/Asian Man Records), John Feldman (Goldfinger), Tom Dumont (No Doubt), and Christian Jacobs (Aquabats) all have their fair share of time in front of the camera. There were a few notable omissions, particularly Dicky Barrett from The Mighty Mighty Bosstones. Tim “Johnny Vegas” Burton is the lone representative from that band to appear in the movie.
While the movie focuses on the ’90s, it doesn’t completely ignore the history of the genre. Pick It Up! discusses the genre’s roots in Jamaica and the immigration of the sound to Britain in the ’70s which birthed the two-tone movement. It’s quick and glosses over a lot of milestones of that time, but that’s understandable considering the focus of this movie.
The movie is a pretty brisk 100-minute movie, and is presented in a way that doesn’t make it feel too long. Heather Augustyn, a professor of English composition at Purdue University Northwest and author of many books on the subject of ska wrote this movie. The interviews in the movie are supported not only by a wealth of footage from the ’90s, but also by animation from Sarah Schmidt, which is used to enhance various stories during the movie.
Scott Klopfenstein, previously of Reel Big Fish, provides man-on-the-street interview segments. In those segments, Scott asks people walking the streets of New York City what they know about ska. Maybe it’s because of the topic, but I could have watched another 100 minutes more. Thankfully there are bonus features included with the movie that expand on various topics. I presume that these were segments in earlier versions of the film that didn’t make the final cut. Of the bonus features, I really enjoyed the segments about Asian Man Records, Toxic Toast Records, and the topic of religion in ska.
Nostalgia drives this movie, no doubt about it (pun intended), but the movie is genuine in its discussion of the topic. This isn’t a cash grab. Morden and his crew aren’t trading in nostalgia for a quick buck. There’s a passion behind this movie that’s felt with every passing frame. From Karina Deniké in a record store to Dan Potthast in the back of a van during a rain storm, this movie is shot with a passion and respect for the topic that few documentaries convey. This is not only a great music documentary, but it is a great documentary, period.