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Words by Mr Dan Cairns

There are many images in Marley, the director Mr Kevin Macdonald's searing and revealing documentary about Mr Bob Marley, that cause you to fight back tears, but two, in particular, stand out. One is a black-and-white photograph (the first known image of the Jamaican star) in which he stares, a suited and inescapably vulnerable teenager, into the camera, his mother beside him. "That photograph was taken at his mother's request because she is about to leave for America," says Mr Macdonald. "She is standing next to him, holding his half-sister in his arms. She gave it to him as a memento. So he's already lost his father and now he's being abandoned again." A second photograph is equally emotive. Again, Mr Marley stares shyly into the camera. It is his 36th birthday, and friends and family have gathered in a clinic in Germany where the singer is being treated for the cancer that will claim his life just weeks later. On his head is a hat, covering not the dreadlocks that became such a talismanic part of his image, but the baldness caused by his treatment. He looks shrunken, terrified.

The key to understanding the impact Bob Marley had - is that he is still the only Third World superstar, and he came from extreme poverty, sleeping on mud floors

Mr Macdonald argues that Mr Marley's journey was, to a point, dictated by race. As the child of a white father - Mr Norval Marley - and a black mother, the singer grew up stigmatised by prejudice, forced by his cousins and uncles to carry out dogsbody tasks in Nine Mile, the rural village he was raised in. Mr Macdonald, whose previous films - including One Day in September and The Last King of Scotland - have won Oscars and Baftas, interviewed more than 60 people, including Mr Marley's wife, Ms Rita Marley, and his children, band mates, relatives and girlfriends, during the making of Marley. He believes this feeling of being the outsider never left Mr Marley. Moving to Trench Town in the Jamaican capital as a teenager and forming the band that would later become The Wailers, the singer again experienced hostility. His embrace of Rastafarianism was, the director demonstrates in the documentary, informed by a quest for identity after years of being denied it. That he would later become a global star, regarded to this day as a black icon, especially in Africa, is an irony not lost on Mr Macdonald. "That's the key to understanding him and the impact he had - that he is still the only Third World superstar, and he came from an extreme poverty no other star has experienced, sleeping on mud floors."

Mr Marley's immense charisma and ability to write and perform songs that lodged in people's heads and hearts, which took reggae to the top of the pop charts, is contrasted in the documentary with his innate shyness, and even inarticulacy. Diminutive and pale-skinned, he was not, Ms Marley says at one point, the archetypal man that Jamaican women of that era were intent on snagging. Why was he so successful with women, Mr Macdonald asks one of Mr Marley's male friends? "Because he was shy," comes the reply.

Throughout the film, you sense that Mr Marley was a contradictory, elusive character that nonetheless inspired deep love and devotion in those who knew him. Here was a man who had fought to redefine himself and shake off his past, who preached spiritual virtue and one love, yet was unable - or unwilling - to remain faithful to Ms Marley, fathering numerous children by other women. Moreover, as his children make clear in the film, he was remote and fiercely competitive. Mr Macdonald acknowledges this, but believes it is another factor in the singer's appeal. "At the beginning, I had feelings about him that were quite cynical. Like many people, I was fed up with the commercialisation of music, and here was someone with this highly commoditised image, familiar to people all over the world. Yet I ended up with feelings of great love and admiration for him. He wasn't a hypocrite, like so many are - though perhaps he would have become one had he lived longer. He had many flaws, but they were very human ones and they didn't lessen his likability."

He wasn't a hypocrite, like so many are, but perhaps he would have become one had he lived longer. He had many flaws, but they were very human ones

Gaining access to so many people who knew Mr Marley was, Mr Macdonald continues, undoubtedly a coup, but it was also double-edged; there was a fair bit of walking on eggshells, he admits with a laugh: "A lot of the people I talked to hate each other or have resentments, feel they've been ripped off or something like that, and they all hate Chris Blackwell [the founder of Island Records, a label to which Mr Marley was signed]. So it wasn't as simple as going along and saying, 'I'm making this with the family's blessing'."

The director describes making the film as "a quest to uncover who Bob Marley was - this man we think we know but in fact only know superficially. I didn't know what the film was going to be until I made it, if that makes sense. I talked to about 80 people, and through their words I came to understand him. It was like creating a mosaic, a film that was made in the process of making it, if you like." Throughout the 144 minutes of Marley, Mr Macdonald's painstaking gathering of information about the singer's brilliant but tragically brief life allows the viewer to arrive at an assessment based on every aspect - the good, the bad, the doubtful and the poignant - of his enigmatic personality and extraordinary achievements. You end up knowing more about the former and gain a more profound understanding of what drove him as a result. Returning to the latter, to the songs - "No Woman, No Cry", "Natty Dread", "Jamming", "Exodus", "Redemption Song" - that punctuate the film, you gain a deeper appreciation of their importance and enduring greatness. Does Mr Macdonald feel that he completed his quest? "I think so - at least I hope so. I know that I ended loving him and his music more."

Marley is on general release now

The Trailer


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