Forever young: “Glamour Boyz Again”

Calypsonian the Mighty Sparrow may be pushing eighty, but he’s still the “calypso king of the world” — as the new documentary The Glamour Boyz Again more than proves. Garry Steckles previews the film

Lord Superior (left) and the Mighty Sparrow (right), with Brigo and Conqueror, engaging in a picong battle during the 1960s. Courtesy ‘Calypso Dreams’, hand-coloured by Michael HorneSparrow winning the Calypso King award in 1956. Photograph by Courtesy Geoffrey Dunn, hand-coloured by Michael HorneStill from Glamour Boyz. Courtesy Geoffrey DunnGlamour Boyz director Geoffrey Dunn, executive producer Lord Superior, and associate producer Annemarie Stephens liming during production of the film. Courtesy Cathy George

Geoffrey Dunn makes no bones about it. He was on tenterhooks.

His latest film, The Glamour Boyz Again: The Mighty Sparrow and Lord Superior on the Hilton Rooftop, was having its world premiere at a prestigious movie festival in Toronto — and the filmmaker, historian, and award-winning author couldn’t be there. He was in his home in Santa Cruz, California, wondering and worrying about what sort of reception it was getting.

Finally, he received a text message that told him all he needed to know. It was from his friend George Maharaj, the renowned calypso historian and musicologist, who informed him that the film had just ended, and the verdict was in. The Glamour Boyz, he told Dunn, was great, and the largely Caribbean audience at the gala premiere to launch this year’s CaribbeanTales International Film Festival loved it.

“I finally felt relieved then,” says Dunn, the writer, director, and co-producer of the documentary, a follow-up to 2004’s Calypso Dreams, widely acclaimed as the best film ever made about the art form.

As Dunn was still breathing sighs of relief, one of the two stars of The Glamour Boyz was working the crowd after the screening at the historic Royal Cinema in Toronto’s Little Italy. Slinger Francisco, known to calypso fans worldwide as the Mighty Sparrow, was in his element, still enjoying the adulation that has been coming his way for much of a fabled career dating back to the early 1950s. Says one observer, Toronto journalist Jim Baine: “What struck me was the complete and utter adoration from his fans. The guy’s a rock star. He may be pushing eighty years old, but he’s got charisma just oozing out of him. Women were giddy around him, practically climbing over each other to get close for a hug and a kiss, and men were lining up for a handshake. And you could tell he was enjoying every minute of it — especially the attention from the women!”

One of those adoring women was Trinidadian Merlene Coffey, a Toronto real estate agent. “Here’s how I felt when I met Dr Birdie,” she says. “I cried, realising that this might be the last time I would see and touch him. My stomach was nervous, hands shaking. I asked him for a kiss and got three. After the kisses, he buss down a piece of wine. I whispered in his ear, ‘Boy, you still have it.’”

No one who’s seen The Glamour Boyz would dispute that for a second. While the documentary revolves around a 2002 acoustic performance by Sparrow and his long-time friend and fellow calypsonian Lord Superior, the film’s first and last segments were shot this year at an event in Trinidad honouring “The Calypso King of the World.”

He was lauded for his remarkable achievements and his recovery after spending two weeks in a diabetic coma in 2013 — a health crisis that led to widespread reports that he had died. At the event, Sparrow couldn’t resist sending a tongue-in-cheek message in song to Lord Kitchener, his late friend and only serious challenger for recognition as the greatest calypsonian of all time. Sparrow informed Kitch that he has no plans to catch up with him in heaven any time soon. “I want Kitchener to know,” he deadpanned, with just a glimmer of a smile, before breaking into song, “I ain’t ready yet, aha, I now begin to fete, aha, I having a good time, aha, don’t break up the lime, aha, go way, go way, I intend to stay, praise Paul I ain’t comin’ up [pointing a finger to heaven] at all.”

The Port of Spain event wound up with Superior and Winston “Gypsy” Peters joining the Birdie in a brilliant extempo rendition of “Jean and Dinah”, the song that won Sparrow his first Road March and Calypso Monarch crowns in 1956.

Says Dunn: “When I saw the footage, I wanted to use it as a bookend to start us in the present. And then when I heard them using “Jean and Dinah” as an extempo, I knew I wanted to include that as well, as a way of bringing us back to the present at the end.

“In between, you do a little time traveling backwards,” Dunn continues, “first to 2002 on the rooftop, then to the 1950s via the old footage, music, and stories.”

The archival material puts Sparrow and Superior’s rooftop performance into sharp perspective. The rare footage — worthy of a film on its own — is of Port of Spain and of Carnival in those innocent days. It also frequently shows the fair-skinned and white women who dominated the beauty contests that were a big part of Carnival in the colonial era, as Sparrow and Superior tell Dunn — wearing his interviewer’s hat — of the hardships and unfair treatment calypsonians had to deal with back then.

Stephen Weir, reviewing The Glamour Boyz for Huffington Post Canada, wrote that the film’s message “gives deep, deep insights into the maturation of calypso, Carnival, and the cultural independence of Trinidad and Tobago.”

So when will Caribbean audiences get to see the documentary? Soon, says Dunn. “Since Toronto and the reception it received there, there have numerous requests from various festivals for the film. I’m not intending it to play anywhere else until we stage our Caribbean premiere in Trinidad, hopefully in mid-November.

“I am also trying to facilitate a Spanish-language translation, so it can appear in Cuba, where Calypso Dreams was popular, and in the rest of Latin America. Where it goes after that is anyone’s guess. It should also be available in Trinidad for the holidays in DVD format.”

Dunn also stresses that The Glamour Boyz is a very different film from its predecessor. Calypso Dreams, he says “was a wide-ranging film, nearly encyclopedic in its breadth. I think there were more than two dozen artistes in the film. The Glamour Boyz is much narrower in scope, more intimate if you will, in that it presents this single acoustic performance by these two giants of the artform. It’s an absolutely brilliant performance. I still can’t get enough of it.”