There may be rock stars who have sold more records, had more Number 1 singles, or been famous for a longer period, but there is no single musical star whose image and music has reached so far into the lives and culture of the dispossessed and deprived as Bob Marley. This film is a fitting testament to the impact he still makes 30 years after he died.
There is a great deal I learned as a result of seeing this film, including the fact that his father was an Englishman called Norval Marley who was 61 when Marley was born at the end of WW2, while Bob's mum was barely 18. The father's main legacy was genetic (he barely showed his face again), so Marley grew up in Jamaica, initially in the country, but later in Trench Town, in the capital, Kingston. The fact that he was half-white and half-black meant that he was bullied mercilessly as a child, which also meant that he toughened up early, and – despite his small stature – became more than a match for anyone who disrespected him. But it was his exposure and conversion to Rastafarianism that changed his life, and dominated it for his remaining years. His music, his beliefs and his hair all stemmed from his spiritual convictions, and led to him becoming the uncrowned king of reggae from then until now.
The film follows his story all the way through his life, with a series of funny, moving and insightful interviews. We meet pretty much everyone who knew him and is still alive. His mother, his wife, and the mothers of his children, as well as a couple of the children, one of whom looks uncannily like him. Then there are friends and relations, and, most memorably, Bunny Livingston, an original Wailer, who deserves a film all to himself. There is also Chris Blackwell, the founder of Island Records, who helped turn Marley into an international superstar, but whose influence is still argued over.
But that is the nature of a legacy for a man like Marley, whose music worked its way so far into the world's psyche, that you will find pictures of him with as much frequency as that other liberation icon, Che Guevara, and whose songs (especially 'Get Up, Stand Up') are still chanted in countries like Tunisia during the Arab Spring. His voice represented and represents those to whom life gives nothing, even though the man himself ended up with a fortune (perversely but intentionally he left no will, which has meant a prolonged battle over his estate).
If I'm honest (and if you care), Marley is not in my pantheon of great musicians (Paul Simon, The Beatles, U2, Neil Young, Bob Dylan et. al.) but this film makes it clear why he was so charismatic and memorable. He may have been a competitive and infrequent father, and his sexual morality may have been non existent, he may have made unfortunate choices (in retrospect, playing at Mugabe's ascent to power seems dodgy), but watch him on stage, flinging his hair every which way, or talking with a quiet intensity (though he hated interviews), and you can see why he was so magnetic. He was, after all, a very good looking guy whose music made it impossible for you to sit or stand still.
Kevin Macdonald, who built his reputation with documentaries (Touching the Void) does a wonderful job of pulling all this together into a coherent and compelling whole. I'll be interested to see if the film does as well as Senna last year (there are some underlying similarities between the 2), and I hope it does. Music documentaries have a very special place in cinema, giving us a legacy that will remain forever, and sparing us some godawful feature film in which Lenny Kravitz IS (or rather isn't) Bob Marley.
Go and see this film, and remember (or discover for the first time) why every home worth its salt has a copy of his Greatest Hits. This is even better.
By Phil Raby
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