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The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film -

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.

This week

Fox (88min, $24.95)

(PG) Para­mount (371min, $44.95)

(M) Warner Bros (90min, $29.95)

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