Soul of Jamaica, face of reggae
By David Malitz
Friday, Apr. 20, 2012
"Marley," the new documentary about reggae icon Bob Marley opens on April 20 - of course.
That date - often referred to as 420 - has been, since the 1970s, a time for people to gather to consume or celebrate pot.
It has become an unofficial marijuana holiday, and Bob Marley has become the unofficial saint of marijuana. More than 30 years after his death he is almost so singularly associated with weed that there are probably some freshmen in college right now who know Marley only as that dude on the poster above the bong in the living room.
Of course, he's much more than that - the face of reggae, the soul of Jamaica, an international symbol of the struggle against oppression. And each of those important pillars is covered in Kevin Macdonald's ("The Last King of Scotland") vibrant and captivating documentary. It's exhaustive without being exhausting, an eye-opening and all-encompassing portrait that should go a long way to rescuing him from being a marijuana mascot. Don't let the tacky opening date fool you - this is a film to be taken seriously.
The first striking aspect of "Marley" is that it simply looks spectacular. The early aerial shots of the hills of Jamaica where Marley grew up are stunning. Macdonald immediately gives a real sense of setting that is important to understanding the early part of Marley's life. He wasn't born in the Trench Town ghetto; he was a "country boy" who grew up in a rundown shack in a town with no electricity. He was also something of an outcast because he was half-white; his father, whom he never knew, was a white Jamaican of English descent.
Marley's early career and the eventual birth of reggae offer the most insightful musical history lessons here. Of the many interview subjects, Marley's longtime collaborator Neville "Bunny" Livingston is particularly indispensable. He was one of Marley's original bandmates in the Wailers, who helped create reggae as an offshoot of ska, and his colorful recollections tell the story of Marley's musical beginnings. Those beginnings were much longer than many might realize - Marley began recording in 1962 but only became a global superstar in the handful of years before his 1981 death.
The stories of Marley and modern Jamaica are so intertwined that it would be irresponsible to ignore the latter while documenting the former, and Macdonald doesn't neglect this duty. Marley's conversion to Rastafarianism is told through the prism of Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie's landmark 1966 visit to Jamaica. Old footage of Selassie mobbed by Jamaicans at the airport mirrors film of Marley returning to Jamaica after a brief self-imposed exile a decade later. In those years Marley had become an international sensation, and Macdonald deftly weaves together the story of his musical breakthroughs, personal revelations and cultural responsibility.
Even though there is plenty of live concert footage, some viewers might complain that there is not enough. Macdonald never pauses the narrative to let "Marley" drift into concert-film territory. An entire live performance of "Kinky Reggae" is included, but it serves as the background soundtrack to the topic of Marley's famous infidelity, featuring interviews with wife Rita Marley and daughter Cedella, one of Marley's 11 children with seven women. ("Marley" has the full approval and cooperation of Marley's estate, the first of any Marley documentary project.)
Macdonald makes sure to include footage of Marley performing when stakes were at their highest. We see him during a 1976 concert at the height of Jamaica's political strife, just days after Marley narrowly escaped an assassination attempt. A 1980 performance in Zimbabwe celebrating the country's independence contains arguably the most indelible image of the film. When crowd control issues caused security to release tear gas into the crowd, Marley's band members fled the stage, but he remained front and center, temporarily oblivious to the chaos surrounding him, a living embodiment of his lyric "one good thing about music, when it hits you feel no pain."
And that is the greatest success of the film. Without ever falling into the trap of fawning over his subject, Macdonald connects the man and his music while adding depth and context.
Bob Marley may be the face on the T-shirt of the guy smoking a joint at a frat party, but "Marley" shows us he was much more.
Contains drug content, thematic elements and some violent images.