Midday – last Friday. Got a phone call. “Meet me at 2pm… Screen On The Green… Bob Marley… the film… my shout!” How could I refuse? I’d seen the trailer and was vibed up. I’m a fan and despite knowing the man’s history and music inside out I was ready to kick back and see what Kevin Macdonald had come up with.
Over two and half hours we followed Bob’s journey from Nine Mile in the parish of Saint Ann to Dr. Issels clinic in a Bavaria. It’s a roller coaster ride which had my companion wiping the tears from his eyes at the end. Bob was only 36 when he was taken from us, ravaged by cancer, but his legacy is large enough to ensure that the film featured prominently in the BBC 10 o’clock news on the day of its release.
The early part of ‘Marley’ sees Macdonald boldly home in on Bob’s mixed race background and the pressures and prejudice that he suffered as a result. His father, “Captain” Norval Marley, was a charlatan who basically took advantage of a sixteen year old country girl and then abandoned both her and her child. The shadow of slavery and the legacy of the licentious, colonial overseer was something that Bob Marley had to carry with him for the short life.
The reality was harsh and the film maker’s research reveals that Bob’s father had not vanished from Jamaica but had his own family. In fact, the teenage Bob discovered this while living in Trenchtown and approached the family for support. After incident of outright rejection he reached for his King James Bible to write a song. It was called ‘Cornerstone’ and predicted “the stone that that the builder refuse will always be the head-corner stone”. How right he was.
Above: The Wailers – Bunny Livingston, Bob Marley, Peter Tosh
The Wailers acquired musical notoriety during the post independence era of the rude boy. Despite recording a bunch of hits for Clement ‘Coxsone’ Dodd they grew up rough behind zinc fences, in yards on unpaved streets with no lighting and a stand pipe. I can just visual the trio conquering their fears by singing and harmonising for the “duppy” in the cemetery under Joe Higgs’ watchful eye. They often went hungry and the only person in the film to convey that was the impish Bunny Wailer.
Bunny’s contribution to the early part of the film is crucial. Him and Bob go back to Nine Mile and like both of his now departed brethren he maintains a no-nonsense, feisty, militant spirit. Ironically, the only surviving Wailer, seems to have been written off by a bunch culturally ignorant film critics as an eccentric clown. In reality, nothing could be further from the truth. I met and interviewed Bunny for the NME at the dawn of the Eighties, around the time of ‘Rock & Groove’ and ‘Sings The Wailers’, and believe me, he is one very serious person with a stare that can cut you in two.
Macdonald admirably gets to grips with the impact of the early Rastafari on Bob’s world view. Check the film footage of HIM Haile Selassie’s arrival in Jamaica. Look at the Rastafari in that footage and what you see are DREAD-locks… not pretty locks… proud but penniless sufferers who found their roots in Biblical prophesy and the words and actions of Leonard ‘Gong’ Howell and Marcus Mosiah Garvey. They were outcasts, hounded and beaten on the instruction of Prime Minister Bustamante. As Bunny Wailer says, they were the “Blackheart” men who lived in the gullys of the city and as the film shows, it was through a Rastaman, the legendary Mortimo ‘Kumi’ Pla.no, that Bob received the framework for the vision he would take to the world.
A combination of vision, self belief and action ensured Bob Marley and the Wailers became juke box and dance hall stars in Jamaica. They cut their teeth at Studio One but it was the alliance with Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry which produced some truly mind-blowing music and also gave them the confidence to set up their own Tuff Gong imprint. From there it was a short step to meeting Island records boss Chris Blackwell. He had a vision for these soul rebels that manifested itself on the seminal ‘Catch A Fire’ album. Even though Blackwell was heavily involved in this film, I found it gratifying that his crucial role in taking the Bob Marley and the Wailers onto the world stage his role was not overplayed.
The flip top sleeve and Chris Blackwell’s post production signified The Wailers moving onto a whole new level.
Thinking back to that interview I did with Bunny Wailer, it took place in the yard at the back of Neville Garrick’s house/artists studio in Hope Road, and it’s Neville who is one of the most compelling and insightful interviewees in this documentary. He appears throughout the film and there is an intimacy to all his contributions that not only illustrates his love and respect for his brother in arms but allows the viewers to venture below the surface. Neville’s description of daily life at Hope Road and the attempted assassination is a case in fact.
Hope Road was open house and Bob was familiar with all the enforcers from both sides of the political divide. They are all onstage at the Smile Jamaica concert when Bob pulls Michael Manley and a very uncomfortable looking Edward Seaga onto the stage and makes them join hands. It’s an incredible moment and Bob, who had escaped death only hours before, is like a shaman, a man possessed… totally out there, in the same way he was when playing live at at the Zimbabwe Independence ceremony in 1980 when when the freedom fighters who’d invaded the stadium were tear gassed.
‘Marley’ illuminates the mission. All over the world, wherever people were suffering, his music found receptive ears. However, in the USA his audiences were predominantly white and having been schooled on R&B and the harmonies of soul artists like the Impressions this was deeply frustrating. Bob had his fans – Stevie Wonder for one – and as part of the US leg of the Uprising tour in September 1980, Bob Marley and the Wailers rolled into New York City for two consecutive sold out nights at Madison Square Garden as part of a bill featuring rapper, Kurtis Blow, Lionel Richie and the Commodores. With no costumes, no choreography and no over-the-top set design they took to the stage and blew the place apart. This was an audience schooled on slick moves and Soul Train but Marley’s intense, electric stage presence had them on their feet. For the headliners, the Commodores, they were an impossible act to follow.
Only days after those triumphant Madison Square Garden concerts Bob collapsed while jogging in Central Park. He later received a grim diagnosis: a cancerous growth on an old soccer injury on his big toe had metastasized and spread throughout his body. Bob decided to fight it to the end and there is moving, never before seen images in the film of Bob – minus his dreadlocks – at Dr Issel’s holistic clinic in Bavaria. Neville Garrick describes the ice on the lake so thick that you could drive a car across it. Less than eight months after he collapsed, on May 11 1981, Bob Marley passed away in Miami
One thing that keeps coming back to me are the interviews in the film with two of his eleven kids. Ziggy was grateful for the time he got with Bob but Cedella looked intensely unhappy. Her father’s life was full on and as they didn’t live together she saw him all too infrequently. Maybe, as a result of him not having a father of his own he found it difficult to fulfill that role but either way, she and her brothers and sisters were robbed of a father that they had to share with people from all over the world.
‘Marley’ is a film that needs to be seen. Thirty years have slipped by since he died and he would have maintained that you have to know your history to know where you’re going. His contribution was profound and relevant in this troubled word of ours and as such Kevin Macdonald’s film is a potential source of inspiration source to generation who weren’t even born when Bob Marley & The Wailers reigned!