Man to Man: A Review of Marley (2012)
Welcome and thanks to Matthew J. Smith for this review of the new documentary on Bob Marley, Marley, by Kevin Macdonald.
Kevin Macdonald, the Oscar-winning director of films such as the Last King of Scotland, wants to be clear about his new documentary on Reggae legend Bob Marley: It is above all an examination of Marley as a man, not an icon. Macdonald hopes the film will encourage viewers to “re-listen to the music in a way that is enlightened by an understanding of the individual.” This premise is not as simple as it appears. Bob Marley was a complex man and getting a sense of the highs and lows of his short yet immensely influential life, is not an easy task. Macdonald’s two and a half hour Marley, meets that challenge by providing us with the most comprehensive presentation of Bob Marley’s life that we have ever seen on screen.
Jamaicans already know a great deal about Bob Marley’s story, which has long been gilded into legend: His mixed parentage and birth in Nine Mile; his coming-of-age on the streets of Trench Town; his entry into the crowded world of Jamaican music first as a solo performer and then in 1963 as part of the Wailers; his Rastafari worldview; his phenomenal rise in the 1970s after signing with Chris Blackwell; the assassination attempt on his life in 1976; the legendary One Love Peace Concert in 1978; and his tragic death at 36 from cancer. But it is the impact of these events on the singer’s life that Marley is concerned with.
To tell the story Mcdonald divested himself of any preconceptions and instead set about collecting every scrap of visual information he could about Marley. It helped, of course, that the film had the full endorsement of the Marley family and Chris Blackwell. He also interviewed nearly 100 people (about half of them make it into the film) who knew aspects of his life or simply crossed paths with him at turning points. In an interview with Macdonald following a preview of Marley at the Rotterdam Film Festival in Curaçao, he expressed to me how these stories created a mosaic that “scratched away at the mythology” of Bob Marley and shaped the film’s narrative.
From its first few minutes Marley impresses. A powerful opening sequence set in Gorée island, on Africa’s gold coast, segues into a breathtaking aerial shot of St. Ann, and the film’s first interview with Bob Marley’s primary school teacher, who is aged yet has sharp recollections of Marley as a youth. More than two hours later, this interview finds its bookend with another elderly woman, the German nurse who cared for Marley in his last days. These two women, one from the green hills of Nine Mile, and the other form the snow-capped mountains of Bavaria, did not know Marley during the height of his fame–neither ever attended his concerts–but they each saw him up close at the early and late stages of his life. It is in showcasing these moments—what Macdonald calls the “human details”—that Marley shines.
The film makes hard choices on content. Viewers expecting new insights into the crucial transitional phase in Marley’s career in the late sixties when he worked with Johnny Nash and Danny Sims, or his foundational work with Lee Perry in the early seventies, might be disappointed by their brief coverage. The same goes for his complicated relationship with Peter Tosh–though Bunny Wailer’s interview gives ample information on life in the Wailers. The decision to abbreviate the pre-Island years was done, according to the film-maker, out of necessity; there simply is precious little surviving footage or photographs, the raw material of the documentary film.
What does get much screen time is Marley’s personal life. His relationships with women, the importance of Rastafari to the focus in his music, and especially his mixed race heritage are brought into sharp relief. Through a previously unseen interview with Marley’s mother, Cedella Booker, and for the first time, interviews with members of his paternal family, a sense of his interior struggles against prejudice emerges. In one of the film’s most emotional moments Marley’s sister, Constance Marley, discusses their father Norval, and the side of the family that Bob never knew. “Out of his rejections” Macdonald maintains, “came his force of character and will to succeed.
This determination can be seen in the wealth of previously unpublished photographs and live concert footage, that take us from the cemetery where the stage-shy Wailers first rehearsed, to Marley’s large stadium tours in the late seventies. Africa is central to the narrative as it was for Marley. The film’s opening scene in Dakar, which unfolds over an explosive version of Exodus, is anchored later on by Marley’s performance of the same song at the Zimbabwe independence celebrations in April 1980.
A secondary though no less important subject of the film is the Jamaican context in which Marley’s genius was birthed. It is impossible to tell Marley’s story without considering this, and the film is to be credited for how much new visual material it reveals about Jamaica in the 1960s and 1970s. The historic 1966 visit of His Imperial Majesty’s (the anniversary of which is coincident with the film’s worldwide release) is shown for the first time in brilliant, flawless color. In shots of the crowd we see bright Jamaican flags waving beside Ethiopian flags, a reminder of His Majesty’s wide appeal among Jamaicans. There is also a vital glimpse of rare footage of Rastafari elder, Mortimer Planno speaking in the mid-sixties, and incredible film of Trench Town around the same time. Even familiar images such as the One Love Peace Concert and Marley’s funeral are given incredible makeovers from the original negatives and reproduced in rich high definition. With the murkiness removed we are able to pick out elements unnoticed before, such as former Minister of Security, Dudley Thompson standing prominently behind Marley as he performed at the Smile Jamaica Concert.
Ultimately the film is a tribute to Marley’s fight against the odds. The interviews with those close to him may not tell us a lot about his creative process, but they do offer a great deal about his devotion to his craft and the personal losses suffered by him and his family along the way. Cedella Marley supplies the most frank comments about a father that she had to share with the world and lost far too soon to an incurable disease. The sad final chapter of the film, which covers Marley’s painful end days as a patient in Germany and climaxes with his 1981 funeral, reminds us of how much his native island felt that loss.
The film’s closing moments are an upbeat celebration of what Macdonald calls, Marley’s “world domination.” Fifty years after independence Bob Marley remains the most celebrated Jamaican in the world. No other musician in history is so completely associated with the country he comes from, an “amazing and almost problematic” fact as the director admits. Marley brings us closer to understanding why this is so.
Marley will have its red, green, and gold Jamaican premiere at a free screening at Emancipation Park on April 19. It is not to be missed!