Magnolia Pictures releases a new documentary on the legendary Bob Marley on April 20th. MARLEY is directed by Kevin Macdonald (The Last King of Scotland) and it premiered at the Berlin Film Festival and at SXSW.
Obviously there have been quite a few documentaries on Marley over the years, but this one is unique in that it delves deeper into the man himself and less of his legend. His son Ziggy Marley is an executive producer of the film, and he says on the official Bob Marley website, “It is very emotional. This is the most personal Bob film any one will ever see. You will cry and smile.” I for one had only seen bits of other documentaries before, and I knew little about his family life.
It’s always disconcerting to discover the inevitable character flaws that get hidden by the talent and accomplishments of our heroes, and Marley is no exception. I had heard, for example, that he had lots of children, but I hadn’t realized that they were illegitimate children from marital affairs. Perhaps tellingly, Marley’s father was also a philanderer, although Marley never knew him – ‘Captain’ Norval Marley was a 60-year-old, white, government land worker who impregnated Marley’s 16-year-old mother (yikes), and then moved along.
I also didn’t know that his fight against cancer was long and drawn-out, with a stay at a holistic clinic in Germany, where his iconic dreadlocks fell out. An interviewed nurse claims that he remained always charming and friendly throughout.
The film features some beautiful shots of the green mountains of Jamaica, as well as the sharp contrast of footage in Kingston’s Trenchtown. The interview subjects include his mother, his wife Rita, Bunny Wailer, a couple cousins (including one funny, charismatic guy whose heavy patois is subtitled), Chris Blackwell of Island Records, Lee Jaffe and other various members of the different Wailers line-ups, and girlfriend Cindy Breakspeare (Miss Jamaica, 1977).
It’s painful to hear the bitterness in Marley’s daughter Cedella’s voice when she tells us about his lack of closeness with his children, how even at his deathbed, there were fans pushing in and taking importance over them. Although Rita Marley explains that by the time Bob was having affairs, she had become to think of him as more like a prophet than a husband, because his message of peace and love was the important thing, Cedella insists that there were times where she could see her mother’s pain.
The insights into the development of Marley’s music with the Wailers, which we get from Bunny Wailer and some colorful Studio One folks (one of whom has the title of ‘Singer and Janitor’) are fascinating. I never understood before that ska was party music or dance music, and that Marley turned to reggae, with help from producer Lee Scratch Perry, because he was more serious. Also interesting is the story that the reggae rhythm was created when musicians at Studio One discovered old delay equipment, and started mimicking the echoing sound with the strokes on their guitars. Hearing Marley’s first ska singles and covers of American pop songs like “Teenager in Love” is also a lot of fun.
Everyone who knew him talks about how serious Marley was about music, but it’s also revealed how much of an outcast he felt for being half-white, or “half-caste” as they called it. This may be one reason that he was drawn to Rastafarianism and its teachings that people are all one; Rastafari elder Mortimer Planno took him under his wing. The negative side of his beliefs is shown here, however, through sexism – we learn that he began to believe women should always wear dresses and not pants, or even make-up. When called out for his affairs in earlier interviews, he claimed that “Fidelity is a western idea”, and that he could “make his own rules”. Yet we hear one girlfriend say that he used to tell her, at least teasingly, not to go with any other boys.
These things make me wonder about the sweet lyrics in some of his songs, like “Is This Love?”, from the 1978 album Kaya. I wanna love ya, and treat you right… By that time he was definitely involved with Cindy Breakspeare, while Rita Marley was performing with him as part of the I-Three singers. The two of them were there at his deathbed together with all of his children that Rita could find, which is really remarkable.
The good the man brought into the world is arguably more important, of course. After leaving for London due to the attack on his life by the political gangs in Jamaica, he returned to hold a massive peace concert in which he brought up the two rival politicians to hold hands on stage. He held a free concert in Zimbabwe in celebration of their independence, for which the freedom fighters had used his music as an anthem. He spread his message of peace and love all around the world, which the end credits reinforce with moving clips of people singing his songs in various countries. Perhaps we’re better off knowing about Bob Marley as a human being than as an inimitable legend, not just to honor his family, but also because it reminds us that it’s not impossible for anyone to follow in his footsteps. We can remember that others, however flawed, can still inspire the world as he did.
Image courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.