and magic that Bob Marley created
As with the tale of Elvis—it is strange to consider the emergence of people from very humble circumstances and their ability to catalyze public feeling, how they arrive to give the world what it badly needed.
The fine documentary Marley by Kevin MacDonald includes a scene that sums up that mystery. Marley had a half-sister named Constance, who never knew him personally. Given an MP3 player and headphones, Constance is asked to listen to Marley's 1970 song "Cornerstone.' Constance knew the song but not the subject, about how Bob Marley was rejected by his father's side of the family.
Marley has its moments of contemplativeness—aerial views of the strange, steep, round hills of Jamaica, rolling like waves for mile after mile. The documentary begins in Ghana at the infamous "Door of No Return,' the gate leading to the docks of the slave ships. It ends with Marley's own last voyage to the cemetery.
Perhaps the film is most unusual at the point where Macdonald takes time out to study Constance's face. The lyrics to "Cornerstone' come from Psalm 118 and refer to how the stone that the builders rejected became the cornerstone.
Constance murmurs, "How true is that!' She adds that the name Marley is famous now not because of her father's family, prominent construction business owners in Jamaica. Rather, the world's most famous Marley is the scorned illegitimate child of a British Army vet in his 60s, and Cedella Booker, a black Jamaican girl in her teens from Nine Hills in St. Ann's parish.
MacDonald works with a wealth of material. If Marley is, like most mystics, essentially unknowable, we can see the people he knew and the places he lived. Marley's childhood home was the size of a garden shed, with a cacophony of roosters around it.
In his youth, he and his mother left for Kingston's Trench Town, a shambles of corrugated iron and salvaged wood. Bob's mother, Cedella, left for Delaware when he was 17, by which time Marley already a musician.
Marley was a devout Rastafarian at this point, embracing the faith that the emperor of Ethiopia was Christ reborn, smoking the Bible-endorsed herb and growing his hair into tangled locks.
His sound was expanded by Lee "Scratch' Perry, the kind of eccentric who would baptize the four corners of the studio with white rum before starting a session. Marley also fell into the orbit of Chris Blackwell of Island Records. Blackwell says he believed he knew how to "pasteurize' Marley and the Wailers' sound for the international markets.
Bob Marley became an international ambassador for a music that stormed the world, even as he got caught up in partisan gunplay. Jamaica nearly blew up over the hotly contested election between parliamentary candidates Edward Seaga and Michael Manley; the dueling graffiti of the time read "CIAga' and "Is Manley Fault.' Perceived as too close to Manley, Marley took a bullet from thugs; he displayed his wounds at a concert to try to end the madness.
If Marley felt there was a failure in his career, we learn, it was that reggae never massively electrified African American listeners. A close-up of a white American kid at a Marley concert, tossing his stoned head, says it all about how reggae's deepest fan base is located in thousands of college dorm rooms.
But Marley shows us a man of mysterious chemical power, of relentless energy and wariness. He was conservative because of his religion, and yet he indulged in affairs galore, with a Miss World, Cindy Breakspeare, as well as the daughter of the dictator Omar Bongo of Gabon.
Marley is a full-sized, sympathetic portrait, and yet it's not softheaded, even when the man's bravery is overwhelming. At Marley's last show, he was riddled with cancer. That didn't stop him from telling the crowd in Pittsburgh that he'd like to play there every year, every week.
Wittily, the film's been chosen for a 4/20 release; it's a shame not to hear this marvelous music under the influence. If you're Rastafarian, perhaps it's a sin as well.
PG-13; 144 min.