Following the trajectory of a cinematic biopic, the new documentary Marley is organized as a straightforward biography, starting with Bob’s birth and ending with his death. But the movie is so much more than a linear story of one man’s life and music. Its 144 minutes expand the standard genre and end up being a kind of resurrection of Marley’s spirit. The movie itself becomes as captivating and inspiring as Marley’s music. Directed by Kevin MacDonald, whose political inclinations and creative eye can be seen in The Last King of Scotland (the impeccably filmed story of Idi Amin), Marley is shot and assembled beautifully. Compiled from contemporary interviews and archival footage, the film isn’t just a messy hodgepodge of material with a bunch of talking heads thrown in for the delivery of factoids. Rather, the film is assembled to be a thing of beauty itself, evoking the spirit of Bob Marley in both form and content. Contemporary interview material includes reggae musicians Jimmy Cliff and Bunny Wailer; Jamaican ska/reggae guru Lee Scratch Perry; Marley’s wife and backup singer Rita Marley; two of Marley’s children – Ziggy and Cedella; the former Miss World and one of Bob Marley’s many girlfriends – Cindy Breakspeare; and various music industry people and friends.
All the interview footage is shot with attention to aesthetics and to highlight the individuals’ personalities. The interview subjects are not your standard talking heads. They are situated in environments, colors and compositions that show the emotional and internal landscape of the people being interviewed and their personal relationship to Bob Marley. The cinematography evokes an emotional landscape which resurrects the spirit of Marley through the hearts of the people talking about him and enhances our perception of Marley the man. Instead of just providing the sort of information about Marley that one can easily find on the internet, the way the people are filmed allows us to see and experience the man through their eyes and adds to the film’s sense that we really are spending 144 minutes with this man even though he is long dead and gone. It’s almost like he’s there in the room with the people talking.
For example, as daughter Cedella is filmed with her body taut like a coiled wire in a stiff backed chair in a dark room, we are able to feel the claustrophobia of her bitterness and emotional baggage, her resentment over her father’s absence from her life, and the lid she has clamped down on her sense of abandonment and pain over the loss of her father. On the other hand, Rita Marley bursts onto the screen in a riot of color and enthusiasm. The sun shines behind her. She is a glowing spirit of light and color, giving us the portrait of a woman whose spirit got her through the best of times and the worst of times. She was wife, backup singer, and Rasta Woman, but also paid witness to Marley’s infidelities with other women. Yet she stood by him because she had complete faith in his art.
Marley had eleven children by seven different women. All of this is revealed through interviews spliced between archival footage. Certainly Cedella shows one side of this story, but with the legacy of Marley’s music and the change that it affected in the world, it is hard to judge him. “Judge Not” as he says in that first song at age 16. And the film asks us to “judge not” as well.
Bunny Wailer and Jimmy Cliff have no end of stories about Marley. They are situated center frame, speaking as the musicians they are. When they recall their stories about Marley, we feel as if we are with the man himself as they scratch out songs at dawn, kick a soccer ball on a field together, or gather for political discussions at Marley’s house in Jamaica. Both musicians came from the trenches with Bob, and they have plenty of personal stories to tell about the evolution of Marley and his music. As they tell the stories, we really feel like Marley is with them as they evoke Bob’s spirit by making their tales so personal and full of life.
The documentary gives new insight into both the man and his music. It shows us what an awe-inspiring man Bob Marley was – a powerfully unique spirit and an exceptionally charismatic and talented person, who was ignited by an unquenchable desire to create music and change the world. He was a man whose drive to create and spread his art and voice through music was so powerful that he pumped it out of himself at full speed for his whole (and much too short) adult life. Even when his entire body was being eaten away with cancer, he got up on stage and poured every inch of his being into his songs and his performances. He was a man whose music not only inspired political change and revolt, but whose legacy has continued to ignite freedom of the human spirit across cultures, races, and countries ever since. A man who sung his way out of the Jamaican ghetto, Marley poured his own personal conflicts and experience of racial and economic inequality into music that became universal cries for freedom and love.
It is pretty damn hard not to like Bob Marley’s music, and after watching this documentary, it’s pretty damn hard not to stand in awe of this man who is one of those rare spirits who lands in the world, lives too short, and gives us so much to make our lives better. I am a firm believer that in this world that that seems to be on a head-on collision with the apocalypse, we have to embrace the good that humans have to offer. Good for me comes in the form of creative expression – music, art, poetry. Bob Marley’s creative voice was a gift that changed so many people’s lives, whether providing respite in the form of some sweet music to dance to or inspiring people to revolt against the forces of racial oppression. There are few musicians who had the spiritual and political aura and the ability to incite change through music that Marley had.
The film talks about how Marley was born mixed race, the son of a white man (Norval Sinclair Marley) who abandoned him at birth and a black Afro-Jamaican (Cedella Booker) who moved Marley to the slums of Kingston, Jamaica when he was a young boy. Trenchtown is the name of the neighborhood where Marley grew up, and it is poor as poor gets. Yet it is also the birthplace, the core, and the very heartbeat of reggae music. Bob started playing music when he was dirt poor in Trenchtown, and he stayed dirt poor for a good long time before he finally became successful. He moved from an unsuccessful solo act to a “band” with the Wailers, creating his own record label with the help of Lee Scratch Perry to fight the stranglehold Trojan Records had on ska and reggae. In classic record industry exploitation of disenfranchised musicians (see American “roots music” for another example), the record executives were making the money while the musicians were making the music and not seeing any of the economic returns. Marley and his group changed that by making their own label, acting on the sentiment of resistance and empowerment that lies at the core of so many of his songs. Later they would move onto other labels, but early in his career the way Marley produced music was an act of rebellion.
Through Jimmy Cliff and Bunny Wailer, we also learn about the roots of ska music and the evolution of ska to reggae. First they talk about how ska had a different rhythmic structure than doo-wop and soul, with stress on the offbeat. Then they explain how reggae evolved from the change of the sound of the guitar, how it was an accidental change of guitar rhythm (from a tape loop playing over itself), creating a double stroke on the strings – cha-ching, cha-ching – rather than a single. This is the kind of information about the creative process that makes music documentaries like Marley rewarding for artists like myself. Cliff, Wailer, Lee Scratch Perry and Marley’s London record producer Chris Blackwell also deliver quite a bit of information on the evolution of the Reggae sound and Marley’s music. It didn’t just start as the “One Love” sound we hear today. It was an evolution over time, a result of process, sound manipulation, and just plain accidents.
Marley cut his first single “Judge Not” at age 16, and that song contains so many things that Marley would follow through with as his career matured – the plight for equality, the drum and bass rhythm that is the signature backbone of reggae, and an infective spirit to lift our hearts and our voices and embrace life against all odds. That first Marley song was “ska” – the “pre-reggae” music that dominated Kingston before the distinctive reggae sound was accidentally found in the studio one day. The low cost production values combined with Marley’s young bursting enthusiasm make those early songs so urgent and raw, carved out of the streets from which he came. Early ska music wasn’t highly produced in some slick music studio. Instead it was created from everything from empty metal drums covered with cow skin to an empty box with three taught strings pulled across the surface. The rawness of the streets is evident in the music, but so is the human spirit, a creative will that can make music even amidst the hardest of realities.
In the documentary, record producer Blackwell refers to Marley’s breakthrough album Exodus as “the most pasteurized” of Marley’s albums. Indeed, this album represented the turning point in Marley’s music. The songs are layered with sounds that are a result of studio technology. The pure heart of Marley is there, but it has been put through tape loops and effects, the riffs layered on top of each other to make the music more dense yet more clear at the same time. Having access to high-end equipment that could “layer” the sound gave Marley’s music the signature reggae dub effect. That doesn’t make the sound less good. It’s just more refined. Marley’s spirit and distinct sound are still alive and pulsing in his later (and most successful) albums, but the sound is definitely not the raw, unfiltered pleas that came from his voice in Trenchtown. Still, all of Marley’s music — from his first song to his last album — is amazingly urgent, passionate and transformative. His production values may have changed over time, but his voice, energy and message never did. The trajectory of his career – from his childhood in Trenchtown to his stadium-packing career as a musical Messiah – is fascinating. As a man, an artist, a revolutionary and a visionary songwriter and performer, Marley is a wonder. The film does his legend full service.
In tracing the evolution of Marley’s music, the film shows how troubling it was for Marley not to be able to reach a black audience in the United States. While the music rose from the black ghetto of Jamaica, it was never adopted by the black audience in America. Outside his country, Bob Marley was seen as a rock star, an image that record producers promoted and which aligned Marley with white musicians (not unlike Jimi Hendrix). But Marley’s music was very politically and racially motivated, so this image was one that left him troubled, especially given his own internal conflict about his mixed race. It’s interesting because there are so many black American musical influences in reggae. The songs are clearly driven by roots music, jazz and soul, yet the American black audience did not embrace Marley.
Even today, Marley’s American audience continues to be largely white. His music inspired massive political change in making Zimbabwe an independent country governed by black people and free from white oppression (how sad Marley would have been to see Robert Mugabe’s decline into another dictator abusing his own people), yet in America that spirit of racial equality did not ring for the black audience. Right before Marley was diagnosed with cancer, he was asked to play the opening act at Madison Square Gardens for the Commodores. He willingly accepted, hoping to reach a broader American audience. Indeed, the black people in the audience embraced Marley’s sound, but the concert footage shows that the audience that followed the Commodores was also largely white. Racial dynamics of soul music in America is something on which whole books can and have been written. It’s interesting to think about where Marley fits on that musical spectrum.
The film also provides a kind of crash course in what it means to be a Rastafarian, including the religion’s roots in the Jamaican black descendants of slaves, its Christian dimension, the religious doctrine of smoking weed because the Bible says to “take in the herb,” growing dreadlocks as a sign of spiritual evolution, and the patriarchal heart of Rastafarian culture (e.g. women wear dresses and no makeup). Marley also explains that in the early days Jamaicans worshipped the Emperor of Ethiopa Haile Selassie who they saw as the second coming of Christ (a.k.a. Jah). Later, Bob Marley would assume that role by becoming a global musical Messiah spreading his message of peace, love and revolution.
You can still find Marley’s image painted on black velvet worldwide, right next to paintings of Jesus at the Last Supper. Understanding the spiritual significance of the dreadlocks and ultimately the spiritual role that Bob Marley played in the lives of so many oppressed people, it is heartbreakingly tragic to hear how he lost his hair to cancer. First he began to lose his hair with chemo, but then the weight of the dreadlocks themselves was too much for his frail body to bear. The image of his hair coming off is a tragic symbol of his physical decline. It is a powerfully final and devastating symbol of the fragile mortality of this visionary man. Nevertheless, Marley may have lost his hair and his life to cancer, but his spirit lives on today.
The archival footage in the film really is what drives the energy of the documentary and cues us into the absolutely mind-bending energy of Bob Marley. Concert and interview footage with Marley himself and archival photos are expertly spliced together with the present-day interviewers of his survivors. Watching Marley speak and perform, it is clear that he was channeling major energy from some powerful source. The man had an aura that could blow the lid off of any government. He seemed so casual, yet his energy was entirely focused with power and vision. That is why he was the target of assassins who attempted to still his voice with guns, because he was seen both as in league with the Jamaican government but also as a source of revolt and uprising. Though he was trying to spread peace and equality, in his homeland the reception to his message was as mixed as his race.
The footage of his live performances is amazing. The film is a gift just to allow us to see such a delicious glut of material of Marley in action. This man gave all of himself every single time he performed. He never held back. In interviews and concert footage of Marley, one thing is constantly clear. The man had vision and the persistent energy to drive his vision forward. Whether writing songs at the crack of dawn, kicking a soccer ball, running on the beach, pulling chords from a guitar or dancing on stage – Marley was a fireball of creative energy and charismatic drive.
Marley emanated energy like a solar flare, a shining force of power and light. He smoked a joint and went for a run before he wrote songs. He was fiercely athletic and furiously competitive, but like most artists, he mostly competed with himself. In the end, he both won, and he lost. He created a musical legacy that changed the world and the sound of music, but his drive also prevented him from tending to his own physical health (follow-up exams for the melanoma that he had on his toe) and he dropped dead of cancer at age 36.
His death was a sad and terrible thing. One day he was performing with his entire heart and soul. The next he was flying to Germany in a last ditch effort to survive by going to the world’s most renowned holistic healer. When Marley was in Germany, I kept thinking how sad it was, that he should be back in his home in Jamaica for his last weeks alive. However, Marley sings in his songs, he was not going to “give up the fight.” He did fight, but in the end, cancer won the battle, and the world lost a musical legend. But it didn’t lose his music or the spirit it conjures every time one of his songs is played.
Fittingly, then, rather than ending with Marley’s death, the film ends with the sound of Bob Marley’s music playing today and with footage from all over the world of people singing and dancing to his songs. In Japan, Russia, Africa, South America, the Middle East, France, his native home Jamaica, and all around the world, the filmmakers caught people on film living the spirit of Marley. It is clear in this footage, that the message and sound of Marley’s music is just effective today as it was over thirty years ago.
These closing shots are hopeful and life affirming even after Marley’s death. It made me think that Bob Marley really did give us a gift that few people, regardless of age or race, can’t appreciate. I remember one time in the early 1980s when I was playing a Bob Marley record on the turntable. My mother came over to visit and asked what I was playing. I told her Bob Marley, and she said, “I like it.” She stopped in the middle of the room and began to dance. I think I’ll stop everything and dance to a Bob Marley song right now. In these hard times when the world seems to be crashing down in every corner on the globe, where the gap of inequality grows wider every day, it seems like as good a time as any to revive Bob Marley’s voice and to “get up, stand up and don’t give up the fight.” This documentary reminds us of that spirit, and that, my friends, is a good thing.
Kim Nicolini is an artist, poet and cultural critic living in Tucson, Arizona. Her writing has appeared in Bad Subjects, Punk Planet, Souciant, La Furia Umana, and The Berkeley Poetry Review. She recently published her first book, Mapping the Inside Out, in conjunction with a solo gallery show by the same name. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.