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Bob Marley on film: dread definitive

Bunny Livingston, the last surviving Wailer, wanted $1 million. Things were helped when Marley’s oldest son, Ziggy, joined the project

April 12, 2012 | By:

Using rare footage and interviews, a new film on Bob Marley attempts to reveal the life and thinking of the man behind the public face, writes Michael Prodger

Culture_Bob Marley on filmBob Marley hardly lacks for posthumous interest. There has been a slew of books and films about him since his death from cancer in 1981; 20 biographies and counting, as well as numerous film and television biopics. Now the film Marley, perhaps the most definitive project of them all, is finally to be released, two years after it was first scheduled to be screened.

The director is Kevin Macdonald, whose previous work includes The Last King of Scotland and Touching the Void. He only picked up the film, though, after first Martin Scorsese and then Jonathan Demme (The Silence of the Lambs) had a go at it and fell – or were pushed – by the wayside.

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Macdonald’s aim was to follow the template of the 2010 documentary on Ayrton Senna and get as full an idea of Marley as possible by talking to as many people who had known him as he could. This was not a straightforward task, since Marley spread himself thin, with innumerable girlfriends, 11 children, and countless collaborators, musicians and friends. Virtually everyone of an age in Jamaica claims to have known him.

Nor was it made easy by some of the would-be participants’ demands. Bunny Livingston, the last surviving Wailer, wanted $1 million; someone else demanded $50,000 for a ten-second snippet of a rare song. Things were helped when Marley’s oldest son, Ziggy, joined the project.

What the reminiscences – spiced with previously unreleased songs and unseen footage – reveal is the thinking behind Marley’s public face. His conversion to Rastafarianism was not just for personal, spiritual reasons but because a part of him saw it as a pan-African religion that could also serve his concerns with the freedom struggles going on in South Africa, Zimbabwe and elsewhere on the continent.

The irony that he himself was mixed race – his father being supposedly a Royal Marines captain from Scotland or Liverpool – was neither here nor there. Despite being bullied as a child for his white blood, he saw himself as a black African.

His politics helped to make him the first Third World superstar. His white audience, of course, feted him largely for the music. The concert footage in the film tracks his development from ska to rhythmic agitprop. It also brings home not just his role as the First Man of reggae but his energy on stage and his youthfulness. He was only 36 when he died and could perhaps have lived had he not refused, when the melanoma that killed him first appeared there, to have a toe amputated.

What comes across most clearly of all, though, is the sheer potency of the way he combined the musical, political, philosophical and personal. It is that, bound together with charisma, which accounts for the statue of him in Serbia; the reverence with which he is regarded in India; and why Australian Aborigines keep a flame permanently burning in his honour. Something for Bono and Bob Geldof to aim for.

See movie trailers on the Marley YouTube channel