Film

Feel…Heartbeat, Feel: An Interview with the Director of 'Marley'

Jon Langmead

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.


Marley

Director: Kevin Macdonald
Cast: Bob Marley, Ziggy Marley, Jimmy Cliff
Studio: Magnolia
Year: 2012
US Release Date: 2012-04-20

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.

“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.”

Kevin Macdonald

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.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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