Sunday, June 17, 2012

Documentary: Marley, Directed by Kevin McDonald, 2012

Kevin McDonald’s recent Marley Documentary opens with footage taken at the Cape Coast Castle in Ghana, where many of sixty million Africans slaves departed for the New World– through the door of no return. The next scene cuts to a live performance of “Exodus (“movement of Jah people”).

The narrative of the film covers Bob Marley’s progression from his early years as a ska and mento artist, his early pioneering reggae recordings produced by Lee Perry and his relative short but intense rise to international fame that began with the release of Catch A Fire (1974) on island records and ended with his death at the age of 36 from cancer in 1981. The film is narrated in part by the music. Marley’s early life, shaped by his ambiguous position, neither white nor black, features in his first single, “Judge Not”, 1962. As the Wailers get together, and their sound is influenced by black American soul, the soundtrack shifts from the Wailers first single- “Simmer Down”, 1963 to “Put it on” (1965) and - “It’s aright” (1970). “Selassie is the Chapel” (1968) highlights a growing Rastafarian consciousness, under the tutorship of Mortimer Planno. The film then moves on to Marley’s historic reggae recordings of the early 1970s produced by Lee Perry ("Duppy Conqueror"), his move to London in 1973 the subsequent first LP on Island Records, the departure of Tosh and Bunny Wailer, the inclusion of the I-Threes, the recording of Natty Dread and the subsequent Natty Dread Tour (“Kinky Reggae”, 1975).

Thus begins Marley’s rise, not only to international pop stardom, but also as a postcolonial political voice characterised by a generosity as well as militancy, and an ability to bring people together (“one love”). These qualities seem to mark Marley out as distinct from other musical and political revolutionaries like James Brown, Fela Kuti and Malcolm X. The international period of Marley’s career was punctuated by three concerts. Smile Jamaica (1976), which took place only three days after an assassination attempt on Marley and his entire entourage, when Marley, Rita Marley and manager Don Taylor were all injured. The political pressure, fear and bravery of that performance is palpable. Marley appears as a Christ like figure as he stands on stage and opens his shirt to reveal his bullet wounds.Following The Smile Jamaica concert Marley retreated to London where he lived as an exile.

The next great concert took place in 1978. As Jamaica once more prepared to go to the polls, and as the nation was once more consumed by political violence, three of the countries notorious gunmen flew to London ask Marley to return to Kingston to help quell the violence. Marley agreed and the result was the “One Love Peace concert”. The scene features magnificent footage of Marley bringing the two opposing leaders, Michael Manly and Edward Seaga, to the stage.

The third significant concert in Marley’s international career took place in Zimbabwe following the declaration of independence on 17 April 1980. Marley’s song “Zimbabwe” was an anthem of the resistance movement. As the concert got underway, fifty thousand fighters who were locked out of the stadium decided to come in. The gates were flattened and security forces opened up with tear gas. Marley played on. These stories of heroism and politics are unmatched in the annals of popular music.

Underlying the stories behind these three concerts are Marley’s’ attempts to engage with an African American audience and wonderful interviews with many of Marley’s family and associates, including Cedella Booker Marley (mother), Bunny Wailer, Jimmy Cliff (artist), Clive Chin (producer- Randy’s Records), Chris Blackwell (producer- Island Records), Aston “Family Man” Barrett (bass player), Lee Perry, Bob Andy, Junior Marvin (guitarist), Allan “Skill" Cole (manager), and Danny Sims (Manager). Also present are the stories of Marley’s relationships with women. Rita Marley featured prominently in the film, as did Cindy Breakspeare (crowned Miss World in 1976). The daughter of the dictator of Libreville, with whom Marley had a brief relationship, was also interviewed. Marley’s eleven children were represented by Ziggy Marley and Cedella Marley, who expressed her frustration with her famous and in-demand father.

Underlying the story was the knowledge of Marley’s imminent death. Marley contracted melanoma on his big toe following a football accident in London in 1977. Although part of the toe was removed, Marley collapsed in New York in September 1980 following a show at Madison Square Gardens. Marley went on to perform his next show, an heroic feat, and never performed again. He received treatment fro the famed Sloan-Kettering Institute in New York, but there was nothing that could be done. He was discharged in October in October 1980. In November he flew to Bavaria to the clinic of Dr. Josef Issels. The scenes of Marley, in the freezing conditions, his dread locks having fallen out, small and frail, are heartbreaking. But Marley refused to give up. He flew from Bavaria to Miami on May 8, 1981 and died on May 11.

The image of Marley that emerges from the film emphasises his courage, his generosity, his deep religious commitments, his political convictions and his ability to bring people together. In many respects he was not unlike Barack Obama- half black, half white, able to move between different worlds and break down barriers. 

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