‘Must see’ movie : Marley

Bob Marley didn’t invent reggae, although, more than 30 years after his death, thanks to his remarkable body of work he remains its best-known practitioner

But what do you know about him, really? For millions of people, most of their experience of Marley comes from ‘Legend’, a posthumous greatest-hits compilation released in 1984 that remains a staple o record collections, student bedsits and soft-rock coffee shops everywhere. Songs like ‘Is This Love’, ‘Three Little Birds’ and ‘Get Up, Stand Up’ constitute a lot of people’s knowledge not just of Marley specifically but reggae generally

Directed by Kevin Macdonald, Marley is an exhaustively researched documentary about the life and work of Bob Marley, clocking in at just under two and a half hours. Narrated chronologically via a series of talking heads, the film traces Marley from his birth (as the illegitimate son of a white forestry worker and a black teenage mother) in rural Jamaica to local success as a musician in the 1960s, leading to global celebrity (after becoming involved with Island Records in the 1970s) and finally his tragic death from cancer at the height of his fame in 1981, aged just 36.

Marley was born in poverty in Nine Mile, a village in Jamaica, and everything in his upbringing would inform his music, including his mixed race (which was, we learn from friends, a cause for much bullying when he was young). He moved with his mother to Trench Town in Kingston; later she would move to Delaware, and he would follow

But Jamaica would remain his true home and inspiration; he returned after a short time. He had begun recording as a teenager; with Neville ‘Bunny’ Wailer and Peter Tosh, he formed a group that would become known as the Wailers. The other two would eventually leave, embarking on successful solo careers. But Marley’s charismatic stage presence, in addition to his songwriting genius, would make him the bigger star

We hear from many of his fellow musicians, including Wailer and, in earlier interviews, Tosh. Although many people are aware of Marley’s hits, less well-known was Marley’s willingness to reshape his form of reggae to reach a wider audience — a move conducted with producer Chris Blackwell, who added overdubbed instrumentation on the album ‘Catch a Fire’ — and one that did not go down well with his bandmates. Long-reclusive Bunny Wailer, still bristles when recalling Bob’s willingness to go along with Blackwell’s “exploitative” practices. Peter Tosh, the third member of the trio, who also left in 1974 — and who was murdered in 1987 — is heard in an audio clip referring to the British music mogul as “Whiteworst”

Marley is approved by Marley’s family, which might send up warning flares of a sanitised look at his life. But that isn’t really the case; his rather casual approach to his marriage and family life with his wife, Rita — he had 11 children with seven women — is discussed by Rita, and mistress (and former Miss World) Cindy Breakspeare as well as, sometimes less charitably, his daughter Cedella. To call it ‘warts and all’ isn’t quite accurate, because Marley ultimately comes off as a near-heroic man, albeit one with plenty of flaws

When Rita is asked how she felt about her husband’s infidelities, she smiles and notes she had loftier matters to consider. “It was like an evangelical campaign,” Rita says of touring with her spouse as a member of the I-Threes, Marley’s regal, all-female back-up group; she saw her role as Bob’s “guardian angel,” chasing, when summoned to do so, ladies out of his dressing room. The film’s most fascinating talking head, Rita also has perplexing thoughts about Bob’s biracial makeup. Of the melanoma found on her husband’s toe in 1977, she avows “it was the whiteness in him” that caused it

Whiteness, in a way, did bedevil Marley, who was always puzzled by the lack of black audience members at his sold-out concerts, especially in the United States. Marley, often touted as the first Third-World superstar, reveled in his popularity while dismissing material wealth as something only crazy baldheads would care about: “My richness is life,” he says in one interview. The vague, blissed-out Rasta pronouncements he’d make to the press were countered by the specificity and the ferocity of his songs, as in ‘War’, whose lyrics consist almost entirely of a speech Haile Selassie made to the United Nations in 1963. Footage of Marley performing that anthem and others — whether in the US, the UK, Zimbabwe, or, most famously,Kingston in 1978, when he stopped, however briefly, the political civil war destroying his country — reveals the fervor of the “evangelical campaign” Rita remembers

Needless to say, Macdonald unearths some terrific anecdotes, the highlights of which include an altercation with Marley’s thieving agent, an affair with a dictator’s daughter (Pascaline Bongo Ondimba, daughter of President Bongo of Gabon), getting two rival white party leaders to shake hands at a peace concert and playing through a tear gas attack while on stage. On top of that, Macdonald’s appreciation for Marley’s work is infectious and he’s careful to convey an understanding of the music’s origins early on in the film (which opens with footage of a Ghanaian slave fort) as well as including some terrific concert material

Marley was diagnosed with melanoma in 1977, and again the film offers more than the usual biographical information. Blackwell says doctors wanted to cut off his toe to stop the spread of cancer; friends say they wanted to amputate his whole leg. Either way, Marley wouldn’t allow it. He was treated in a clinic in Germany for a time — Macdonald offers a few photographs of Marley, his famous dreadlocks fallen out after treatment, head covered in a hat, padding around in the snow. He died in 1981 in a Miami hospital, aged just 36

Thoroughly researched and packed with phenomenal archival footage, it’s a rousing tribute to a mesmerising performer that forgoes blind hero worship. It’s related in a straightforward matter, a wise move by Macdonald. He doesn’t need to spice things up. The combination of the music and the subject is hypnotic. Marley enthusiasts, of course, will salivate at the material offered here. But you need not be a fan of Marley’s, or of reggae, going in. By the end of “Marley,” you will be

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May 02, 2012

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