The face of Bob Marley adorns millions of T-shirts and posters around the globe and wherever you are in the world, you're probably not far from the pulsing sound of one of his signature songs. Having been groomed by Chris Blackwell, the boss of Island Records, and marketed as a Third World rebel musician, a kind of singing Che Guevara, the beatification of Marley has continued beyond his death in 1981.
Marley is not only an icon but also a shorthand for 'cool' and 'spirituality'. From amateur postings on YouTube to the soundtrack of Hollywood blockbusters such as I Robot, Bob Marley is as captivating as he was electrifying on stage more than 30 years ago. How then to capture the potency and essence of this man whose image and sound is so ubiquitous? Well, first give the job to Martin Scorsese, pass the task on to Jonathan Demme, before settling on Kevin Macdonald, that's how.
As seen at the world premeiere of Marley at the Berlin Film Festival last night, Bob Marley has found a champion in the innovative filmmaker Macdonald - who says that he hopes he has made the "definitive documentary" - to chart his extraordinary and thrilling life. Macdonald announces his boldness early on. We are introduced to the dungeons of Elmina, the slave castle in Ghana, guided to the gate through which the enslaved would pass bound for the New World, never to see Africa again.
But through that dark passage, the film opens to a sharp, throbbing surge of humanity, which is the ghetto of Trenchtown in Jamaica. The connection with the pity of history and the remembrance of the slave past in the Wailers' songs Slave Driver and 400 Years is made immediately.
Macdonald has a keen sense of the contradictions found in Jamaica, Marley's birthplace. The camera's eagle eye sweeps down over the island, offering an image almost of pre-history, and verdant beauty. But, it descends finally to the pestilent squalor of Trenchtown - home to Marley, and his wailing Wailers compadres, Peter Tosh and Livingston, for much of their youth. Indeed, Macdonald has assembled a fine cast of witnesses to Marley's story - none more so than the mischievous and mystical Bunny Wailer (formerly Livingston).
Livingston spells out clearly that Marley, whose mother was black, and whose father was white, was an enigma in a ghetto that was overwhelmingly populated by black people. In Jamaica, a caste system prevailed: white people and the fairskinned elite were despised for the sins of the slave past, and for the way that colonial society was engineered for their benefit. Marley's complexion meant that he was viewed suspiciously. After all, this was a time when Rastafarian ceremonies would begin with the chant: "Death to the white man and his black allies!"
Rita Marley explains that Marley essentially over-compensated for his fair skin by becoming socially and politically, blacker than black. That embrace of his blackness was also a consequence of the rejection he suffered. Marley was abandoned by his father, Norval, at birth. As an adolescent he sought out and attempted to forge a connection with the wealthy side of the Marley family, only to be spurned.
One of the more poignant and inspired moments in the film comes when Macdonald lends a set of earphones and iPod to those relatives to hear the song, Cornerstone, that Marley wrote, based on the traumatic incident. The relatives are fast to pick up on the biblical truth of the song: that the cornerstone (Marley) is the stone that the builder (his wealthy relatives) reject. Ironically, Marley is now an icon; nobody knows those relatives (save for film makers and biographers who occasionally come calling).
One of the challenges in making a documentary of Bob Marley's life is finding reliable witnesses. Indeed, Jamaica is a country where it is famously said: "there are no facts, only versions". And Macdonald's film occasionally struggles to free itself from being held hostage to some dubious "versions". At times, viewers might feel, as I did, that some of the protagonists, such as Lee "Scratch" Perry, might have been saved from parodying themselves.
Nonetheless, the documentary Marley is a startlingly original film. Macdonald has teased out some poignant and intelligent remembrances, especially from the likes of Cindy Breakspeare, one of Marley's long-term girlfriends, and mother to one of his children. And for the first time there seems to be - on film at least - a rapprochement between adversaries and competing voices for the legacy of Bob Marley.
After the agony of the false starts, and the trials and tribulations of the earlier directors on this project, Kevin Macdonald provides us with the ecstasy of Marley. Through the extraordinary music, the colour, story-telling and imagery you will emerge from the cinema transformed.
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