As a British Jamaican, needless to say Bob Marley means a lot to me. I can’t recall a time when his music wasn’t in my life. Some of my fondest memories are of the parties my family would have seemingly every week, with the smells of snapper fish, fried chicken, white rum and rice and peas wafting through the house. On the record player would be an endless collection of vinyl from Dennis Brown, The Cool Ruler AKA Gregory Issacs, Marcia Griffiths and calypso giant, Arrow. But there was always a healthy supply of Bob Marley records. A West Indian party wasn’t a party without at least three or four songs from Bob.
I was only a child when he died but I remember the moment I heard so vividly. I was in our sitting room playing around when my mum came in and told me. I was stunned. It was my first time experiencing death, and I remember feeling the same devastation I would go on to feel with the recent passings of MJ and Whitney. Bob’s music would comfort me when death paid a closer visit when my step-dad passed away in 1999. We held a beautiful memorial for him in a traditional Anglican church in south east London. The reverend allowed us to break tradition by playing Three Little Birds in the church, which instantly lifted the somber atmosphere, turning it into a celebration of sorts. Bob’s music always has that affect. Even to this day if I’m stressed, anxious, angry, uninspired or feeling as if the glass is half empty, my negative energy can be nullified with the opening bars of ‘Kaya’ or ‘Sun Is Shining’. And yet despite all of this I was totally indifferent when I heard there was a new documentary coming out about Bob’s life. As far as I was concerned there were more than enough documentaries out there which adequately charted his life and career. My interest piqued however, when a few trailers emerged on the net at the start of the year. Shortly after that, a few of my Twitter friends went to a screening and their subsequent tweets in praise of the documentary convinced me that I needed to go and have a look for myself.
The backstory: Marley is directed by Kevin Macdonald, the talented and acclaimed director of the The Last King of Scotland. In the press notes to accompany the film Macdonald talks about being approached by founder of Island Records and Bob’s mentor, Chris Blackwell, to make a film to coincide with what would’ve been Bob’s 60th birthday. Chris’s idea was to fly out a group of Rastas to Ethiopia for the first time and film them at a concert to celebrate the late singer’s landmark ‘birthday’. Kevin admits, at the time he was just a casual fan, so the idea never materialised and off he went to make The Last King of Scotland. But as fate would have it he arrived in Kampala, Uganda and found himself surrounded by Bob’s image. Macdonald said,
“I wandered around, particularly in the poorer areas of Kampala, I saw all these Bob Marley images everywhere – on flags and graffiti, with lyrics put up all over the place – quotes from songs. And I thought, what is it about Marley that has travelled the world? What is it that means something even in Africa, even in Uganda of all places?”
And so the Director began the process of working with the Marley family – mainly Ziggy, Bob’s daughter Cedella, and Rita Marley.
I’ll start this review by admitting I missed the first 30 minutes. No fault of my own, I work in Essex during the latter part of the week, and don’t get back until early evening. So I found myself pounding the streets of Soho (good thing I had on my trainers) at 7pm on a Wednesday evening, trying not to miss too much of this documentary that I was now super hyped about.
From the moment I sat down I was mesmerized. The first scene I caught was an interview with Bob’s half-sister who spoke about the relationship Bob had with his white Jamaican father. Now, I didn’t even know Bob had any kind of relationship with his father, it was total news to me. And that’s the beauty of this documentary – it delves deep to uncover the reasons Bob was the way he was. Macdonald stated that he wanted to interview everyone who had anything to do with Bob’s life, and I counted 42 interviewees in the film notes, and they included everyone from his first cousin to a German nurse who looked after him as he rested during his last days at a cancer clinic.
“I wanted to go out with a camera and interview everybody” Macdonald explained. “A problem with a lot of big stars – in particular Bob whose almost got this image of a prophet – is people forget to ask the personal questions – what was his family like? His father? Why was he like he was? Why was he so driven?”
This approach lends a depth and honesty to this documentary – all the awkward questions were asked. It touched on how his mixed race origins negatively impacted him as a young boy. The claims by The Wailers that they were ripped off by Chris Blackwell. Bob’s countless relationships and children out of wedlock (more on that later). And with this you get a well-rounded view of who he was not only as a musician, or spiritual messenger, but a human being, flaws an all. The things that stood out for me most are as follows:
Bob Was Extremely Driven
The documentary sticks to a traditional chronological order format, I caught the action when the Wailers (Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, Neville ‘Bunny’ Livingston) were blowing up in Jamaica and arrived in London having recently signed to Chris Blackwell’s Island Records. But there was conflict from the start. Being a new band they were expected to do the promotional circuit, playing in clubs across the country for free. They didn’t take too kindly to that. Then when they went to the US Chris told them they would have to play in ‘freaky clubs’, and this going against the principals of Rastafarism, Bunny felt he had no other choice but to quit the band. The last surviving Wailer rarely gives interviews but he spoke quite openly about his disappointment at his bandmates’ decision to stay signed to Island. He really expected Bob and Peter to follow but as you’ll discover throughout the documentary, Bob was very single-minded in his pursuit to spread his musical message across the globe. His fame didn’t occur by happenstance. Throughout his career he would compromise, he would bend, he would show humility and continually start from the bottom in his quest to appeal to as many people as possible.
Bob Was Gangsta
Due to the almost prophet-like figure Bob has become in death, it’s hard to imagine him as anything else than an easy-going, gentle figure, much like how he was portrayed in the video to accompany the single Is This Love. You almost forget he grew up in Trenchtown, the notorious Jamaican ghetto in the capital, Kingston. But as the documentary reminded you – he didn’t always walk on the path of righteousness. For example, in the early days when The Wailers were trying to get their records played on the radio they allegedly went into a radio station armed with baseball bats, strong-arming the powers that be to give their music a chance. Then there was his affiliations with political party thugs, one tellingly named ‘Tek Life’, who were henchmen for the rival political parties. Bob knew some of these guys from his days growing up in Trenchtown and rather than turn his back on them when he acquired fame, he would invite them into his home if they stopped by.
I smiled at the beautiful anecdotes from his children who claimed he was a tough disciplinarian who didn’t hesitate to chastise them. “Daddy did rough, rough, rough man” Ziggy recalled with a chuckle. He then went on to explain how Bob would feel no way about outrunning his children when they were playing races, his competitive nature unwilling to compromise for the sake of his children.
Bob Loved. A Lot!
Okay, so it’s hardly a revelation that Bob loved women. The late singer is famed for his infidelities and I’ve always been slightly uncomfortable with the martyr like figure Rita Marley has assumed since her husband’s death. Whenever I’ve seen interviews with Rita she has always maintained that she tolerated Bob’s transgressions due to being able to see the greater picture: their mission to spread messages of love, unity and togetherness across the world. Macdonald not only interviewed Rita, but also spoke to other women who bore Bob’s children, most notably, Cindy Breakspeare, the former Jamaican Miss World who had a long-term affair with Bob resulting in the birth of a son, Damian. Cindy admits that when she met Bob she had no idea that he was married to Rita, she thought they were just bandmates. Although Rita once again relayed her story about being unaffected by Bob’s affairs, her daughter Cedella shed some light on the moments of despair she secretly witnessed her mother go through when she thought no one was looking. It was really a touching moment. But all in all no judged or condemned Marley for his roving eye. The women all admitted they were bowled over by his charm, while the men somewhat typically accused the women of seducing him.
Bob Was On A Spiritual Mission
Anyone with even a basic knowledge of Bob’s life will be aware of two significant moments in the singer’s life. One, was an assassination attempt on his life a few days before he was scheduled to perform at a free concert on behalf of the then Jamaican Prime Minister, Michael Manley, leader of the PNP (Peoples National Party). The other was when he lead the aforementioned Prime Minister to join hands onstage with his bitter rival, Edward Seaga, leader of the opposition, the ultra conservative JLP party. With Jamaica embroiled in a violent and bloody civil war while these two leaders reigned, the significance of this moment was not lost (for those who want to know about Manley and Seaga and Jamaica’s turbulent political history, I strongly recommend the book Born Fi Dead). Macdonald captured brilliantly the tension leading up to both events. Do you remember The Last King of Scotland? If you’ve seen it, do you recall spending the last 45 minutes of the film virtually hanging off the edge off your seat? Well, similar feelings occurred while watching these key moments unfurl on the screen. The free concert footage was awesome. You could see the beads of sweat dripping down Bob’s face as he stood in front of an 80,000 throng audience of concert goers, three days after someone tried to gun him down. And yet, Macdonald still manages to make some light of the incident. Panning from the concert footage to an interview with Neville Garrick, Bob’s Creative Director who spent a significant amount of time touring with him, the interviewer asks. “So they weren’t professional hit men then?” The eloquent and charismatic, Garrick responds with deadpan deliver, “As professional as it gets. Jamaicans watch a lot of movies.” Although we can make light of it now, having been on a tour of Marley’s house several times and stood in the small enclosed kitchen where he was shot, it is nothing short of a miracle that he survived (either that, or someone should’ve gone to Specsavers). It was almost as if his life mission through music was ordained by some higher force. We were shown footage of Bob performing days before he discovered he had terminal cancer, singing and dancing in that energetic, spiritually charged trademark Marley style. Several people from the doc all stated that that particular performance was nothing short of a miracle.
Bob Wasn’t Ready to Go
One thing that struck me was Bob wasn’t ready to die. I know it may seem like an obvious thing to say, but given the fact that he stood and faced death right in the eye when his life was threatened by gunmen all those years earlier, and his mantra was ‘what is to be must be’, I was quite surprised that he didn’t hold a more fatalistic approach to his own mortality.He fought till the bitter end. Cindy Breakspeare made a really touching statement with regards to his final days. She said she wished he had just gone back to his birthplace of St Ann, Jamaica, smoked the biggest spliff, drank some fish soup and died peacefully. Instead he spent the last few weeks of his life at a small private clinic in Germany, battling the snow to go and seek treatment.
As you’ve probably gathered by the length of this post I thoroughly enjoyed this documentary. It took me through a myriad of emotions, and I felt all the more enlightened and uplifted after leaving the cinema. I didn’t even touch on other things like the brilliant unseen footage (the Marley family allowed access to previously unseen archive material), which included clips of a young Marley playing the NYC night clubs,a rare audio clip of Bob collaborating with Stevie Wonder in Jamaica, and copious clips of him playing football across the globe (at one stage Bob even played a friendly match against the National Front). The Marley soundtrack of course plays an integral role in driving the narrative forward. But be warned: the stellar quality of the sound in the cinema will make skanking in your seat compulsory. Please go out and support Marley when it hits the cinemas on April 20th.