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