IN Ghana’s imposing Cape Coast Castle, overlooking the Atlantic Ocean from what was the heart of the British slave trade, lies the origin of the Bob Marley story. Indeed, not just that of Marley — the enigmatic progenitor of modern reggae music — but tens of millions of stories similar to his, of people wrenched from their families and homes and sold into servitude. But, in this case, especially Marley’s.
And so the castle, and its infamous ‘‘door of no return’’ through which the masses passed on their way to misery in the Caribbean, North America and elsewhere, opens Marley, an absorbing documentary by The Last King of Scotland director Kevin Macdonald. It is more than one for the fans, though of course for devotees its rewards are great. But any student of history will also be drawn by the interweaving of empire and music that it describes.
Marley self-consciously built his persona and legend on those African roots, and his embrace of the indigenous Jamaican Rastafari philosophy was key. ‘‘Most of the places they’re telling you about in the Bible, they’re in Africa,’’ Lloyd ‘‘Bread’’ McDonald points out here, and the film documents the adulation shown Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie, the man regarded by followers as the reincarnated Christ, on his 1966 visit to Jamaica.
But as Marley makes clear, young Nesta Robert Marley also saw very early on that music was a way out of the ghetto. His first solo single in 1962, Judge Not, was a signal of the then 16-year-old’s potential, even if it didn’t quite fire up the charts. But with the formation of the band that was to become the Wailers, and their first disc in 1964, Simmer Down, the course was set.
Reggae didn’t yet exist, or at least not quite in a form you’d recognise now. Ska was the Jamaican invention that had come from a mixture of local rhythms and calypso melodies, and its mutation into reggae happened largely in the hands of Marley and his chief collaborators: Peter Tosh, Bunny Wailer, Lee ‘‘Scratch’’ Perry and others. The musical and personal role played by the women in his life — most notably Rita Marley — is detailed, including Rita’s acceptance of his womanising. So, too, his almost unwitting involvement in Jamaica’s political life, leading to an attempt on his life in 1976. As his fame grew beyond Jamaica, Marley wanted to extend his fan base to black America but the cancer that took him off in 1981 — three years after he failed to have a melanoma properly dealt with — stymied that.
Separately, there’s an excellent interview with Macdonald where he describes how he came to the documentary after discovering the huge number of Rastafarians while shooting Scotland in Uganda. He says he realised from this ‘‘there are people who think of Bob as a voice of wisdom, a philosopher’’ right across the world, even as the man’s music had become so ubiquitous that we think nothing of hearing it as background noise in the supermarket. ‘‘The ultimate aim of any film like this is to help you feel the music afresh,’’ he says.
If only Bob could have been around to see just how great his contribution has been.
Fox (88min, $24.95)
(PG) Paramount (371min, $44.95)
(M) Warner Bros (90min, $29.95)