Everyone in the world has heard of Bob Marley – now. But it was not always so; most of his life Marley had no Black following outside of Jamaica and his international concerts were populated by white, dope-smoking hippies. Now Bob Marley is the ubiquitous voice of reggae – which, we learn in this film, was based on a single chord – as evidenced by the closing credits of Marley memorabilia in this fascinating documentary.
Macdonald, despite not being the first choice of director (Martin Scorsese was initially chosen, then Jonathan Demme) combines the dual expertise we saw in The Last King of Scotlandand Touching the Void,both award-winning pictures: the former an adaption of the eponymous novel and the latter another true story, the docudrama of the climber Joe Simpson.
It is brave to make a film about a hero, especially one that reveals his flawed character; yet Macdonald tells Marley’s story with no apologies, just a simple unfolding of the events that shaped him.
Born in rural St Anne’s to a single mother, Cynthia, the illegitimate son of an elderly white Jamaican plantation owner, mother and son moved to Kingston, Jamaica’s capital when he was small. Growing up in Trenchtown was no holiday and, although being a bright boy, the young Bob was soon in a band, releasing his first single at the tender age of 16.
Showing the ruthless ambition and competitiveness that was to characterise his life and career, Bob seemed to get through producers and band members with surprising ease; his legendary charisma and charm meant that most of them remained friends however. Or did they? One of the challenges of posthumous movie-making is that, in the case of a quasi-god, memories may be re-honed and re-cast in order not to seem the villain of the piece.
I was struck in the marvellous interviews (as well as the unseen footage of Marley himself) with Marley’s band members, friends and family that, almost without exception, the memories were told with great humour, fondness and – mostly – in incomprehensible patois. Thank goodness for subtitles. Even the poor cheated-on Rita, wife and life-long member of the I-Threes, seems to forgive him the 11 children by seven different women; and tolerated his front-page news affair with the stunningly beautiful (white) Miss Jamaica and later Miss World, Cindy Brakespeare. His son Ziggy – a split of his father – seems philosophical about father’s Bob’s long absences, but his daughter Cendella hits a poignant note and is deeply sad and resentful of her father’s parenting skills. I wonder if she is perhaps the only one who really tells it as it was.
During his short life, Marley displayed all the characteristics of a genius – obsession: the Wailers had to practise for hours on end while on tour; competitiveness: he HAD to win, and always did, for instance at the impromptu soccer matches played in the magnificent house that became the Marley commune; generosity: he gave away most of his fortune to the endless queue of supplicants who pestered and relieved him of his largesse (but not to his immediate family); and a surprising self-effacingness born out of his devotion to Rastafari, ‘White people have Jesus; we have Rastafari’.
The film also serves as a documentary of the times: I remember working and travelling extensively in Jamaica during the early 80s and 90s: Trenchtown was still no-go and the Manley/Seaga political warfare endemic. Marley’s two finest hours were undoubtedly the 1978 One Love Peace Concertin front of 32,000 people, for which he returned from his English exile to bring the warring parties together on stage in an iconic handshake; and the extraordinary no-fee concert he gave for Zimbabwean independence (the most surprising thing was how little the other Bob has changed, giving support to my theory that he has formaldehyde in his veins). Cautionary to note that tear gas and police batons were used against the Zimbabwean people way back then….
However, like all famous people, he was surrounded by sycophantic advisors who appealed to his vanity – another trait shared by geniuses. When diagnosed with melanoma, he eschewed having his toe amputated for fear of it affecting both his football and his dancing. Chris Blackwell said he had known nothing of this medical advice and would indeed have told him different. Had he listened to the voices of reason he would possibly still be alive today.
Still his legend lives on and his mission to support the world’s poor and dispossessed, ‘Get up, stand up, stand up for your rights’ lives on, and when we all get together and sing Marley songs, we ‘feel alright’.