What more is there to say about Bob Marley? He was an international phenomenon, a superstar whose reach extended to every continent, a man who pioneered a new form of music that reached audiences of all races. When I was in Sudan in the summer of 1984 (long story), I danced to endless spinnings of Survival. In Morocco 15 years later, the preferred tracks were “Stir It Up” and “Exodus”. More than just a musical pioneer, Marley was one of the first Third World figures to reach international acclaim, to be as popular in the US and Europe as he was in the Caribbean, Africa and South America. The question remains, though: what more is there to say about the man?
As it turns out, quite a bit. Kevin MacDonald’s excellent documentary Marley attempts to distill its subject’s life and work into two and a half hours, and what’s surprising is the degree to which he is successful. Bob was an enigmatic figure, the son of a white British bureaucrat and a poor black Jamaican woman; ostracized for being a half-breed throughout childhood, he would overcome all obstacles to become the best-known Jamaican in the world. The film relies on extensive interviews with those who knew him as both a child and an adult, and their insights are consistently engaging.
Music was present early on, and Bob tried his hand with various groups. It was with Bunny Wailer and Peter Tosh, though, that he found success. As The Wailers, the group released a series of locally-produced singles that became local favorites, such as “Simmer Down” and “Put It On”, and in the process pioneered a new form of music: reggae. Perhaps the most fascinating revelation in the entire film comes from Bob Andy, a fellow musician, who reveals that reggae’s echoing rhythms came about as the result of a studio effect which nobody knew was happening at the time. Although rooted in ska, reggae’s distinctive sound was born, it would seem, by accident.
Once born, though, there was no denying the popularity of the style, and The Wailers were to be its leading proponent. The band came to the attention of Island Records founder Chris Blackwell (cheekily referred to by Peter Tosh as “Chris Whitewell”), who brought them to the UK to tour. As The Wailers became Bob Marley and the Wailers, tensions increased within the group. Bunny Wailer and Peter Tosh would leave to pursue solo careers in 1974, and money management would remain an issue for the phenomenally popular group.
Marley is no hagiography, and it doesn’t shy away from some of Marley’s less palatable qualities. Although married to the longsuffering Rita, he ended up fathering 17 children by 11 different mothers and showed little remorse for putting his wife—who toured with the band as a member of the I-Threes, the backing chorus—through emotional duress. Some of the film’s saddest words come from daughter Cedella, expressing her father’s inaccessability even on his deathbed. Her bitterness is unexpected, but such honesty requires courage.
The bulk of the interviews are with such figures as Bunny Wailer, Lee “Scratch” Perry and Chris Blackwell, with the focus being on Marley’s musical career. For both casual fans and serious students of the man’s life, this is likely to be where the interest lies. That said, the opening 20 minutes, which focus on childhood, are fascinating, as is the background on Rastafarianism and its role in Marley’s spiritual development.
The blu-ray package here looks and sounds terrific, as you would expect. Played on a 26” HDTV with no external speaker system, the soundtrack is full and rich. Much of the documentary footage is from the ‘60s and ‘70s, and shows its age, but the filmmakers have sharpened it as much as can be expected. There are no full performances of songs here, but the many concert snippets include “Exodus”, “Get Up, Stand Up”, “Concrete Jungle”, and “Lively Up Yourself”.
Extra features on the blu-ray are extensive, including commentaries by Kevin MacDonald and Ziggy Marley, as well as extended interviews with Bunny Wailer (who gets quite a lot of screen time in the film already) and children Ziggy, Stephen and Cedella, which focus on Marley as father and family man. There are various other odds and ends, including an in-studio recording of Marley jamming on an unfinished song called “I’m Loose”, but disappointingly, no extended concert segments or performance videos. A lengthy featurette called “Around the World” is a moving reflection of Marley’s global reach in places as disparate as Tibet, Brazil, Ghana, Tunisia and Japan.
Of course, nothing substitutes for Marley’s work, but in light of the icon’s unorthodox life and restless creativity, interest in him is likely to remain high. This film will go a good ways toward assuaging that interest, and rekindling interest in his oeuvre.