Bob Marley’s wife Rita says she became his “guardian angel” as his fame grew.
On tour, she would graciously request the women crowding his dressing-room to leave when he’d had enough. She forgave him his many lovers. His mission was more important than her feelings, she says.
There is some sadness in her eyes that suggests suppressed pain, softened by the years. Rita is among those interviewed for “Marley,” a thoughtful portrait of the reggae king directed by Kevin Macdonald and premiering at the Berlin Film Festival.
Talking about Marley without using the word “Legend” is hard. The album of that name has sold more than 10 million copies and continues to sell 250,000 a year. Marley died in 1981, when he was 36 years old, of cancer -- long before the advent of the Internet, yet he has more than 33 million followers on Facebook and Twitter.
Anthems like “No Woman, No Cry” and “Get Up, Stand Up” are known and loved across the world. In developing regions especially, Marley has saint-like status because of his activist message that the poor and downtrodden will have their day.
This film brings the man behind the legend a few steps closer, into sharper focus. As well as Rita, interview partners include Bob’s mother; two of his 11 or 12 children; the one surviving original Wailer; a former Miss World who was one of the lovers; and Island Records founder Chris Blackwell.
We’re transported back to the desperate poverty of Marley’s remote native village in St. Ann’s, Jamaica, and the shack where he grew up. The son of a British officer whom he barely knew, Marley was a social outcast as a “half-caste.” He was also a shy boy -- a hard image to reconcile with the electrifying stage presence he later became.
His mother took him to Kingston in search of a better life and they lived in Trench Town, a corrugated iron and cardboard slum threaded with dusty alleys. After a short spell with her in the U.S., Bob returned alone to Jamaica. He joined the Rastafari religious movement and grew his trademark dreads. He played soccer, smoked ganja and above all, practiced music.
The steely determination and sense of purpose and vision are what come through in this film. Forget any stereotypes about laid-back Rastas. Marley was passionate, a perfectionist, strategic in his career and extremely competitive.
His daughter Cedella describes the running races he had with his children. He would sprint ahead at full speed and then turn around and laugh at them all trying to keep up -- not exactly the cuddly, indulgent father.
We see Marley defiantly displaying gun wounds at a peace gala in Jamaica after a failed attempt to kill him during a political civil war.
In 1980, police fired tear gas at a concert for the newly independent Zimbabwe to prevent crowds outside from stampeding the stadium. Marley barely seemed to react. He just kept playing and singing as those around him spluttered, wept and fled -- including his backing vocalists.
“Now we know who are the real revolutionaries,” he told his singers the next day.
Footage of Marley in concert and in the studio, clips of interviews, some rare recordings and private material from family archives made public for the first time are interspersed with colorful interview partners for a 2 1/2-hour film that feels a lot shorter. Bunny Wailer, who first met Bob at school, is a delight in his robes and shades with carrot pipe.
“Marley” aims to be the definitive, official film on the subject and, as such, is conventional in its approach. It doesn’t give critics a voice, and in some places, seems to aim to stoke the legend rather than take us behind it. Yet the conversations with family and close friends yield nuggets that offer a more complete, intimate picture of a driven man.
The last part of the film takes us to the snowbound German holistic clinic where Marley spent his last months in 1981. A melanoma that he thought had been removed from his toe had metastasized and taken over his body. If he’d had regular medical checkups after the toe operation, it might have been caught earlier and he could still be alive, Blackwell says.
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(Catherine Hickley writes for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. Any opinions expressed are her own.)