Marley by Kevin Macdonald (2012) The stone that the builder refused
Kevin Macdonald's Marley follows Robert Nesta Marley from his primary school years in his native Jamaica until his untimely death from cancer in Miami in May 1981. Mixing interviews with archive footage, atmospheric Jamaican imagery, and Bob Marley's music, Marley recounts the extraordinary life of one the most important musicians of modern - maybe even all - times.
The child of a white father and black mother (with whom he grew up), Bob Marley, who suffered the taunting of the people around him, grew up feeling that he belonged neither with blacks nor whites. The deeper into Rastafarianism Marley journeyed, the more steadfast his conviction grew that his purpose was to bridge divides between people and help fractionated societies, like his own country, heal. He was also equally committed to the liberation and upliftment of black people, to the extent that he put up the money needed for him and the Wailers to perform at Robert Mugabe's inauguration as the President of the newly liberated Zimbabwe.
As skillfully and balanced as he deals with Marley the hero, Macdonald also devotes a significant part of the film to exploring some less palatable aspects: The philandering (Marley believed that only the rules of the Majesty and not Western rules applied to him), his views on the role and conduct of women, his inability to engage with his children at their level (turning everything into a competition that he would win). Not dealing with these aspects, which Marley probably was as proud of as his musical and other achievements, would mean denying the audience the complete picture. It would also mean that the opportunity to be even more fascinated by the beautiful and strong women in his life, who feature prominently in the film, would be lost: His lawfully wedded wife Rita, his mother and daughter - both named Cedella, one of his many mistresses Cindy Breakspare (Miss World 1976), his lawyer Diane Jobson and backup vocalist and I Threes-member Judy Mowatt. With the same elegance Macdonald deals with the split with the original Wailers Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer, who felt that Marley sold out both his professional and religious integrity in his pursuit of stardom.
Though it is difficult to pick the extraordinary out of the outstanding, there are a few scenes that stand out as absolute gems in this even film that never becomes self-indulgent or manipulative. (Macdonald knows that the story is sufficiently fascinating and in no need of exaggeratations.) One is the moving sequence featuring conversations with Marley's half sister Constance and second cousin Peter (both surnamed Marley) about Bob Marley's estranged relationship to the rest of the Marley clan. Macdonald alternates between the two first talking and subsequently listening to the song Cornerstone, which Marley wrote after a painful meeting with a relative. With earphones plugged in, and rocking gently to the music, Constance asks if she is allowed to talk. Granted permission she points out how true the words of the song ring: "Bob put their name out in the world and became THE Marley. Is that not amazing?" thus granting her rootless brother his rightful place in the family, which he had been denied during his entire life.
Another unforgettable section is the one devoted to explaining how subtly and seemingly accidentally the history of music changed when ska - in what is described as a spiritual transition - turned into reggae, just through one single guitar beat "born out of an illusion". The absolute love and devotion to reggae that Bunny Wailer exudes while explaining the intricacies of the transition. The dedication of Rita Marley who became the self-proclaimed guardian angel of her unfaithful husband out of respect for his work and their shared mission. The electrifying footage of Bob Marley dancing on stage. All these scenes capture the essence of Marley and contribute to making the film bigger than just a story about music or an historical figure.
Sometimes it is hard not to wonder whether at least a part of the greatness of icons who died much too young stems from the fact that they disappeared too early to betray their ideals, or lose their talent, dignity and looks. The footage of Marley's performance during Mugabe's presidential inauguration, which ended in a teargas-drenched mayhem, served as a multi-layered reminder of how often dreams and ideals turn into sordid realities, and even more so as I was watching the film on the day of the announcement of the passing of Ethiopia's Prime Minister - a country revered and idealized by Rastafarians and others, with a leader to whom so much hope was attached.
Bob Marley's story is so amazing that, unless the author recounting it is completely untalented, misinformed or vicious, any fan of Marley and his music could easily be convinced to deem even a power point presentation about him a masterpiece. Macdonald's documentary might not bring much new to those who know their Marley inside and out, but the director's perfectly paced and intimate, yet respectful, narrative, turns the film into two hours and twenty-four minutes spent with a beloved hero and friend for the initiated, and an ultra-compelling and memorable journey for the rest of us.