Appropriately for a movie which spends a fair bit of time in the potato fields of Pukekohe, Mt Zion is a bit of a mash-up. It's a family saga, a get-ahead-in-showbiz story, a late 70s time capsule and a musical tribute too - just as Boy had a thing for Michael Jackson, Mt Zion is for the love of Bob Marley.

And while cramming in all those ingredients can make for a lumpy mix of subplots, first-time feature director Tearepa Kahi serves it all up with obvious love, a quietly watchful pace and a sunbaked visual style.

The result is a smart, finely-observed, heartfelt drama of good humour and decent tunes against an authentic local setting. Sure, it does come with some artificial flavouring, care of the singing voice of Stan Walker, who plays young Marley-obsessed potato picker Turei. He sounds way too experienced too early in the film. And no, Idol star Walker hasn't missed his calling as an actor. But he's more than passable and ably supported, especially by his band-mates as well as Temuera Morrison as his father who puts in his best performance for quite some time.

It's set in 1979 when Marley and the Wailers came to Western Springs. Turei wants his band to enter the competition for the support slot. But the paddocks on the southside of the Bombays aren't easily escaped, especially when your dad is the dutiful potato-picking gang boss ordering double shifts and your mum would rather you use your vocal talents welcoming dignitaries down at the local marae.


There are other hitches, like a lack of decent gear, an errant cousin shacked up in the city with one of the show's promoters, a family accident and dodgy local guitar hero "Booker D" to deal with. Booker is played by Kevin Coco (formerly Kaukau), who gets to do a string-biting solo just like he did back in his Golden Harvest days, and his disco-era band also figures in this.

The original songs that Turei's band Small Axe perform are more soul-shaped than reggae-fired but they're still a solidly tuneful bunch, especially the title track. But one of the best tricks Mt Zion pulls off is evoking the Bob-spirit and his galvanising effect on Turei's generation without the need - or more probably the budget - to have his music on the soundtrack. Marley sure makes his presence felt and helps make this rough diamond of a film shine through its flaws. One that is sure to strike a chord with many. Especially those who know the ones to Redemption Song or One Love.

Stars: 4/5
Cast: Stan Walker, Temuera Morrison, Miriama Smith
Director: Tearepa Kahi
Rating: PG (coarse language)
Running time: 93 mins
Verdict: A film for the whole whanau

* Mt Zion opens in cinemas across New Zealand today.