The Legend of Marley: Kevin Macdonald considers reggae, Rasta and politics in new documentary

It’s taken several decades and faced many frustrating setbacks, but a richly documented and worthy film about the late reggae superstar Bob Marley has at last been realized.

Previously attached to Martin Scorsese and Jonathan Demme, Marley has been brought to life by Oscar-winning Scottish director Kevin Macdonald (One Day in September), who was persuaded to board the project by executive producer Chris Blackwell, the man who signed Marley to his influential Island Records label.

Just as important, Hollywood producer/financier Steve Bing’s money kicked in (through his Shangri-La Entertainment) and Marley’s family finally acceded to full cooperation and access after much dissension. Marley’s son Ziggy is an exec producer and Bing is a producer.

Expectations are no doubt soaring high for this first full-blown documentary, not just for hard-core Marley and reggae fans but for all those who value pop music and its evolution as integral to Western culture.

Providing a wealth of visual material, music and testimony from talking heads close to Marley, the Magnolia release initially conveys the artist’s extreme poverty in his native Jamaica, where he grew up the mixed-race son of a teenage black mother and older, largely absent white British father, a military man who sailed the seas or just plain drifted.

Marley reveals his hardscrabble early life and his music influences, the rock and calypso sounds that shaped what was to become the signature, addictive reggae sound of Bob Marley and the Wailers. In other words, the music that would make him an international sensation.

In Jamaica, Macdonald found much of Marley’s family and former colleagues, some of whom had never been filmed. One of the doc’s treasures is Marley childhood friend Neville “Bunny” Livingston, the surviving Wailer in the breakthrough group that also included Peter Tosh.

Formed in 1962, Bob Marley and the Wailers began as local sensation that delivered a handful of Jamaican chart singles. Blackwell and Island Records then took the group worldwide.

The doc’s other Wailer connection is the group’s former artistic director Neville Garrick, who stayed close to Marley over the years.

Macdonald confides, “Enlisting Bunny and some others was no simple task and took us many, many months. Bunny required eight months’ coaxing. He was suspicious and felt the story of the original Wailers had not been told accurately in the past. And he feels that, as the last survivor of the Wailers, he wants to shape that history, understandably, because the story was misrepresented. We had to persuade him the film would be fair and balanced and, as a completely independent project, the money people wouldn’t have the final say.”

Beyond those closest to Marley, “an important part of the process,” says Macdonald, “was to discover people like Dudley Sibley, a recording artist and studio janitor who lived with Bob for a year or two in the studio back room. Nobody had ever interviewed him before.” Macdonald even grabbed testimony from the nurse who tended to Marley during his final days at a German clinic.

And Marley’s family very importantly weighs in. Marley’s oldest son, David “Ziggy” Marley, came on board, as did Ziggy’s sister Cedella and their mother Rita, Bob’s wife. Macdonald even found Marley’s white cousin Peter Marley, “who had been close to Bob but nobody had thought to speak with before.”

Macdonald also unearthed one of Marley’s extramarital interests, the magnetic Cindy Breakspeare, a former Miss Jamaica who bore him a child.

In fact, says Macdonald, “The most challenging part of the project was convincing people to talk, then getting them on camera.”

Maybe not everything was captured. Marley had a reputation for the wandering eye (he had 11 children) and smoked a lot of weed, aka ganja, but Marley mostly stays clear of those topics.

More to the point, the doc provides a wealth of music and suggests why the Marley reggae sound caught on so big. Music abounds, including hits from the album Exodus and the reggae smash “No Woman, No Cry,” whose rhythms were unique because, as the doc shows, Marley shifted the traditional beats.

But Marley’s music was also infectious because it provided a perfect trinity of spirituality, accessibility and rebellion in sync with the peace-inclined counter- and youth cultures.

The film also covers the U.S. and U.K., among key places where the star and his sound amassed huge fan bases. There’s even a detour to the row houses of Wilmington, Delaware, where Marley went to live for a brief time with his mother after the Wailers first broke up in the early 1970s.

A world away, the doc’s footage in Ethiopia conveys the importance of Marley’s path to the Rastafari cult, actually founded in Jamaica. And legendary Ethiopian leader Haile Selassie, whom Rastafarians regard as a messianic figure, is seen visiting Jamaica.

Scenes back in Jamaica depict the singer’s activism, his role as a peacemaker between rival factions, and his gutsy appearance at a free concert after being shot in his own home. The film even ventures to Germany, where Marley underwent experimental cancer treatments. He later died in Miami in 1981 at age 36.

Marley’s rise to stardom was a triumph against all odds except death. Perversely, this early death surely contributed to his fame. Even posthumously, Marley’s reputation grew, a fact that inspired the many efforts to get a Marley film on the screen. In fact, it is his enduring reputation that convinced Macdonald to take on the project.

The filmmaker’s 2000 documentary One Day in September, about the tragic massacre of Israeli athletes by Palestinian terrorists at the 1972 Munich Summer Olympics after German authorities bungled a hostage situation, got him the Oscar. Then came Touching the Void, a doc which premiered at Telluride 2003 and won the BAFTA and Evening Standard Awards for Best British Film.

Macdonald’s first feature-length fiction drama, The Last King of Scotland, was inspired by events of the 1970s in the life of brutal Ugandan dictator Idi Amin, as seen by his personal physician. Released in the U.S. in 2006, the film became an art-house hit. It won the BAFTA for Best British Film (the Alexander Korda Award) and Best Adapted Screenplay and star Forest Whitaker won both an Oscar and BAFTA for his portrayal of Amin.

Macdonald also directed the terrific Russell Crowe political thriller State of Play (2009), co-starring Russell Crowe, Helen Mirren and Ben Affleck and more recent The Eagle, starring Channing Tatum and Jamie Bell.

As evidenced by Marley and his other films, Macdonald ventures afar and unpredictably. His unique user-generated (aka crowd-sourced) documentary marathon Life in a Day, reflecting how regular souls around the world live their lives, premiered at Sundance 2011 before going on to many other festivals and briefly hitting theatres.

The grandson of the great Emeric Pressburger of the legendary (Michael) Powell & Pressburger filmmaking duo, Macdonald also wrote the award-winning book Emeric Pressburger: The Life and Death of a Screenwriter. He is currently in London in preproduction on the dark romance/futuristic war drama How I Live Now, starring Saoirse Ronan.

Macdonald says he first became aware of “the Marley universe” about seven years ago when Blackwell approached him for a Marley-themed project. But the director took off to Africa for The Last King of Scotland. Ironically, it was in Uganda for the shoot that “I saw images of Bob Marley everywhere, on flags and graffiti and thought this is amazing,” the director recalls. “Then Steve Bing called and made an offer, based on Blackwell’s recommendation. I was on board.”

Asked about the curse of getting a Marley picture off the ground, which had been akin to pushing Sisyphus’ rebellious rock up the mountain, Macdonald responds, “There was a lot of competition, but I believed in the documentary format because the family can’t really imagine anyone playing Marley. Getting the music rights was also complex because the family, Blackwell and Universal were all involved. But the family felt that now is the time because Bob’s contemporaries are getting older. And the kids were young when Bob was really popular, so they wanted to learn more and reveal the man they didn’t know.” This “getting to know him better” plea was also how Macdonald won over their cooperation on the project.

Another challenge was finding archival material as, notes Macdonald, none existed of Marley between 1962 and 1973, except for a few photographs. “But I used a terrific researcher, Sam Dwyer, who spent a year finding stuff. She wore people down but got great music footage and other material. She persuaded people to talk and, in the end, about one-third of those who had never spoken before about Marley did.”

So what was the most surprising thing Macdonald learned about Marley?

“I discovered how Marley was such an outcast, such an outsider even in his native country,” he replies. “As a mixed-race man, he was never really respected and he was even looked down upon because he was a Rastafarian. Yet he found his identity as a Rasta and when he became successful, everything changed.”

Marley premiered at February’s Berlin Film Festival and bowed more recently at last month’s SXSW for its North American premiere. The film arrived theatrically and via VOD on April 20. Says Macdonald, “As a filmmaker, of course I want my film on the big screen, but I am realistic enough to know that that’s not the main place people are going to see it because we’re a niche subject. So it made sense to go with Magnolia.”

Big or small screen, at 145 minutes Marley is a whole lotta reggae and much more goin’ on. Beyond the nostalgia and great sounds, the film is inspirational. And that surely is what Bob Marley—musician, revolutionary, social and political activist—would have wanted.