REG­GAE LOVE

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Music Reviews -

NE the most pow­er­ful yet un­set­tling scenes in Kevin Mac­don­ald’s mov­ing trib­ute to reg­gae leg­end Bob Mar­ley is the land­mark mo­ment in 1978 when, at a free con­cert in Kingston, the singer locks together the hands of ri­val Ja­maican politi­cians Michael Manley and Ed­ward Seaga.

Much was rid­ing on the One Love Peace Con­cert, as it was called, not least that through the mu­sic of Mar­ley and oth­ers, the 32,000 peo­ple in the Na­tional Sta­dium and the pop­u­la­tion as a whole would some­how be united, end­ing years of blood­shed and po­lit­i­cal ex­trem­ism im­ple­mented by local gang­sters work­ing for Seaga’s Ja­maican Labour Party and Manley’s Peo­ple’s Na­tional Party.

It was also Mar­ley’s first per­for­mance in Ja­maica since he had been shot by an un­known at­tacker in Kingston two years ear­lier.

One can’t help but be moved by the power of Mar­ley’s ac­tions as he per­forms his hit song

while hold­ing the lead­ers’ hands aloft. That im­age cap­tures the es­teem in which Mar­ley was held as a mu­si­cian and as an am­bas­sador for his coun­try, his cul­ture and his re­li­gious be­liefs. Much has been writ­ten about mu­sic’s power to change, but no artist has re­alised it the way Mar­ley did and it’s ap­pro­pri­ate that in Scot­tish direc­tor Mac­don­ald’s hands, at least in the film’s early stages, his con­vic­tion as a song­writer and per­former runs hand in hand with the as­pi­ra­tions of his mu­sic-lov­ing, im­pov­er­ished home­land.

What jars, al­beit in ret­ro­spect, is that the on­stage hand-hold­ing ges­ture, de­spite its mag­ni­tude, did noth­ing to ease the po­lit­i­cal un­rest in Ja­maica. In 1980 two of the gang­sters who had negotiated the idea of the free con­cert with Mar­ley were killed. A year later Mar­ley, one of the 20th cen­tury’s most in­flu­en­tial musi- cians, would also be dead, of cancer, at 36. Mac­don­ald, whose fea­ture films in­clude

and takes an un­com­pli­cated ap­proach. It dif­fers lit­tle from the stan­dard for­mat of mu­sic tele­vi­sion bi­ogra­phies, but through his ob­vi­ous love of the sub­ject, the ex­otic lo­ca­tion and in­sight­ful ob­ser­va­tions of the mu­si­cians, friends, fam­ily mem­bers and those who made up Mar­ley’s in­ner cir­cle, the direc­tor has cre­ated a de­fin­i­tive ac­count of a com­plex man who rose from ex­treme poverty to bring him­self, reg­gae and Rasta­far­i­an­ism to in­ter­na­tional at­ten­tion.

It helps, of course, that the story of Mar­ley’s short life is such a com­pelling one. Cedella Booker, his sin­gle, black mother, raised him in dif­fi­cult cir­cum­stances. His white fa­ther, Nor­val Mar­ley, was a plan­ta­tion over­seer, but did not stick around to over­see his son’s de­vel­op­ment. Bob’s skin colour there­fore set him apart, but it was as a singer and song­writer he earned dis­tinc­tion even as a teenager, record­ing his first sin­gle at 16, one of many kids from the shanty towns of Kingston who chan­nelled their hopes and dreams into the prim­i­tive record­ing equip­ment and stu­dios that blos­somed in the city in the 1960s and 70s.

Mar­ley’s rapid rise to in­ter­na­tional ac­claim came af­ter sign­ing to Is­land Records, the la­bel run by English­man Chris Black­well, in the early 70s. Black­well ap­pears in the film, but his re­la­tion­ship with his star is not fully ex­plored. More re­ward­ing are the com­ments of some of his fel­low mu­si­cians, such as Bunny Livingstone and other mem­bers of the Wail­ers and the I-Threes, the fe­male back­ing singers who in­cluded in their ranks his wife, Rita Mar­ley.

Mar­ley’s con­ver­sion to Rasta­far­i­an­ism fol­lowed the visit to Kingston of Ethiopian em­peror Haile Se­lassie in 1966, an ar­rival that pro­voked Bea­tles-like hys­te­ria in the streets.

The lim­ited in­ter­view footage of the singer in the film cen­tres mainly on those be­liefs and how they ap­ply to his mu­sic. He’s less forth­com­ing about the com­pli­cated love life that saw him fa­ther 11 chil­dren by a num­ber of part­ners, although a few of them hap­pily shed some light on what it was like not to have him all to them­selves.

We learn that Mar­ley was pas­sion­ate, not just about women and mu­sic but also foot­ball, an ob­ses­sion that he en­cour­aged among his mu­sic col­leagues and that led to them playing im­promptu matches ei­ther on tour or in the yard of Mar­ley’s Kingston head­quar­ters.

Mac­don­ald slightly overem­pha­sises Mar­ley’s strug­gle to get recog­nised in the US just as his ca­reer was blos­som­ing ev­ery­where else. And the film is un­avoid­ably and deeply sad to­wards the end, as we fol­low Mar­ley’s di­ag­no­sis with in­op­er­a­ble cancer through to its fi­nal stages at Swiss pri­vate clin­ics and Florida hos­pices. You’re left with the feel­ing that he achieved so much, but could have achieved so much more.

It’s in the live footage, how­ever, that we see Mar­ley in his el­e­ment. On stage is where he seems most com­fort­able, de­liv­er­ing ev­ery song with an in­ten­sity and con­vic­tion that seeps from ev­ery pore.

(M) Lim­ited re­lease

Bob Mar­ley

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