"I wasn’t interested in the ‘Let’s make Bob into a saint’ kind of comment."
The new film, Marley, a documentary on the life of musician Bob Marley from filmmaker Kevin Macdonald (The Last King of Scotland, Touching the Void, One Day in September) is a remarkably ambitious work. In scope, it feels close to Martin Scorsese’s Bob Dylan film (Scorsese was slated to be the director of this film at one point), taking a fittingly large-scale look at a major musician whose legend sometimes obscures their reality. Marley died from cancer in 1981, yet his image is a fixture in dorm rooms and apartments and on the t-shirts of people who had yet to be born when he passed away. Legend, a greatest hits collection, has sold over 20 million copies, which almost feels low considering, with all due respect to Meat Loaf and Alanis Morrissette, how little lasting influence many of the albums which have outsold it have retained.
Since Marley’s death, his music has gained a foothold around the world in a way few other artists’ has. “I was more compelled to make the film because having seen around the world in various places, Bob’s presence,” says Macdonald. “You know if you go to pretty much everywhere in the developing world, you will find Bob Marley murals and you’ll find people playing his music.” Macdonald, a Scottish-born director who is also the grandson of legendary director Emeric Pressburger (who along with Michael Powell made a series of classic, revered films, including I Know Where I’m Going!, Black Narcissus and The Red Shoes), brings an appropriately global feel to his film that reflects the global reach of Marley’s music.
Bob Marley, Ziggy Marley, Jimmy Cliff
(Magnolia; US theatrical: 20 Apr 2012; 2012)
“It’s interesting to me that the Arab Spring started in Tunisia,” he says, “and in the marches people were singing ‘Get up, stand up, stand up for your rights.’ And on the site in Sidi Bouzid where the man [Mohamed Bouazizi] set fire to himself and started the whole revolution off, on the wall just behind where he set fire to himself, someone had written the next day in big red letters, ‘Get up, stand up/ Stand up for your rights.’ He’s the only musician where he’s like that; he’s the only musician whose music is appreciated not because it’s beautiful music or it makes you feel this way or that way, but it also has this spiritual or political element. And also there’s a fashion element there, because Bob really popularized Rasta and he popularized the dreads and made it acceptable to have dreads, and now, everywhere you go people have dreads. And that’s, I think, thanks mostly to Bob.”
Marley features dozens of interviews and the story takes you from Jamaica to America to London and on to Japan, Gabon, Zimbabwe, and Germany. The entire project feels driven by a deep curiosity about Marley’s life and legacy, and a strong desire to find a new angle on a story that has been already been covered in multiple, often conflicting, biographies. “A lot has been said about Bob Marley over the years, and I felt going into it that the thing that was missing, that really made me want to make the film, was I didn’t feel like there was a document of the man,” says Macdonald. “You know, the flesh and blood human being behind the icon, and that’s what I was trying to get. I didn’t know if that was possible and the biggest fear going in, was ‘Can we do something that makes a difference and makes this worthwhile?’”
Macdonald interviewed over 60 people, many of whom had never spoken publicly about Marley before, including Pascaline Bongo Ondimba, daughter of Gabonese President Omar Bongo, who was one of Marley’s many lovers, Waltraud Ullrich, Marley’s nurse in Bavaria towards the end of this life, and Wailers’ manager Alan Hall. “As I started to interview people it pretty soon became obvious that there was a lot to be said and that things done in the past were often following on the same kind of tracks and hadn’t really been that interested in, ‘Who was Bob,’ you know, which was the question I was interested in.”
Macdonald’s strength as an interviewer drives the film and moves the story forward. He conducted extensive interviews with Marley’s extended family, including two of his children, his wife, mother, half-sister, cousins, and mistresses, many of who were willing to discuss painfully personal details that serve to create a sense of intimacy and openness. Marley, who fathered over ten children with a number of different women, was openly unfaithful and his wife, Rita, and daughter Cedella discuss this with contrasting sympathies. It’s a credit to the film that Macdonald’s interest in Marley the man extends to the impact he had on the people around him, while as a director he combines enough viewpoints to make you suspend your own judgments, as well.
Hearing Cedella and Ziggy Marley discuss their childhoods produces incredibly mixed emotions. Marley was far from being a gentle man with his family and his children’s memories sound vibrant and pained all once. You easily grasp, as well, the hole that was created from losing their father at such a young age. “In the end,” Macdonald says, “Bob’s children who have seen the film have all said to me, ‘We’ve learned a huge amount about our father from watching this film.’ And that’s been really gratifying for me. “
The film goes beyond the personal as well, touching on the political climate of Jamaica that shaped much of Marley’s life and music, as well as into the roots of the Rastafarian religion and the evolution of Jamaican music. The early part of the film features an extensive interview with Bunny Wailer, who formed the Wailers with Bob and Peter Tosh when the three were teenagers, and frames the evolution of reggae music using interviews with Bob Andy, Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry, and Jimmy Cliff, among others. Seeing Bunny Wailer explain the rhythms at the core of reggae music should count as credit towards an undergraduate degree in music; “Beats are boom, boom, boom, boom,” he says. “With reggae, you get three beats out of four beats, and you imagine the next beat. Feel the next beat. That’s reggae. Feel…heartbeat, feel.” The man is almost a film unto himself.
Macdonald ultimately uses these passages to create a context to more deeply listen to the music featured in the film, and the presentation of Marley’s music is phenomenal. The sound is rich and clear throughout, and there is a mixture of studio recordings and some very fine live footage, from his earliest work with the Wailers through his Island years. No one era is short-changed for any other and the film’s ultimate focus on the music is what makes it such a valuable piece in the ongoing body of work on Marley.
The Wailers were a phenomenal band of musicians, as well, and it’s also to Macdonald’s credit that he includes several in the film, most notably Wailers’ bassist Aston “Family Man” Barrett. “For me, the aim of making any film like this, any film about an artist, would be to send you back to the art. And in particular with Bob because the music has become so ubiquitous and so much a background to our lives that we don’t really listen to it anymore and I hope people who watch the film will then go back to the music and appreciate it again and appreciate it in a deeper way.”
The danger with any work on Bob Marley is that it can so quickly slip into just so much spiritual hoo hah; but in a way, it almost has to, or it’s not giving the story it’s fair due. By the age of only 36, Marley created a massive of body of stand-up work as a musician and pushed his vision of unity as far as he could. The film’s handling of Marley’s painfully early death is notable, and hearing Cindy Breakspeare, one of Marley’s girlfriends, and former Wailer Lee Jaffe tell the story of being at New York’s Sloan Kettering Hospital the night that Marley’s dreadlocks were cut off as part of his treatment for cancer is brutally touching. “The interesting thing for me as a filmmaker,” says Macdonald, was I started off probably less admiring of him than I ended up.” “Marley presents the tangled contradictions and achievements of the man and creates an exceptional portrait that brings his life into a sharp focus. “You know,” Macdonald says, “I definitely ended up admiring him more and I ended up feeling he was quite heroic by the end of it. Partly because I felt like there was just so much integrity in him; he didn’t feel like a hypocrite. He really lived the life he preached.”
Marley will be in theaters nationwide, as well as VOD on April 20. In addition, on this date, the film will also be available for download on Facebook, with all proceeds from that outlet going to Save the Children.