(Bob) MARLEY movie review (and related thoughts)

I confess, I haven’t read the books about Bob Marley – preferring instead more immediate contact (with his and all of Reggae Music), including performing it (’cause I’m a musician too). When it came to reviewing the Marley movie (which I saw recently), I wanted to see what others were saying – to find any kernels of insight – so that I could contribute to the existing conversation. I Googled (of course) and all the big (mainstream) guns appeared: New York Times, Huffington Post, Metro UK, NPR, Time Out London, to name five.

I did learn a few things (that were not apparent from the movie)…these folks do their research! I found that the film was originally to’ve been directed by Martin Scorcese, and that the guy who ultimately got the job (Scottish Director Kevin Macdonald) had won an Oscar (Academy Award) for another documentary of his [per John Anderson with the Times].

I found an apparently damning hit on the written biographical canon (from the same article, all in double quotes): “ ‘This is what we wanted it to be’ [the movie] Ziggy Marley, a successful pop performer, said by phone. ‘I’ve never read one book about my father’ he said. ‘Who are they?’ [meaning the book authors] ‘They don’t know him.’ Rita Marley, Ziggy’s mother and Bob’s widow, concurred.” Rita is featured heavily in the film, well composed and quite secure in her position (and history).

Marshall Fine, in the Huffington Post hit another nail on the head (with his first line!). “Marley was a seminal figure in popular music in the post-Beatles era: not the first person to introduce Reggae to the radio but the first Reggae superstar — and one of the first superstars to emerge from the Third World.This made me think – yeah – who’s come up since, or before: Harry Belafonte, Carmen Miranda? Bob struck a different chord than them, or really, than anyone since (in terms of his revolutionary stance).

Although he seems pretty harmless now (to the establishment) – being no longer alive – and smiling handsomely through ubiquitous merchandising (seemingly everywhere: on t-shirts, posters, etc.), Bob Marley should not be construed as a walking tourist commercial. Sometimes I feel like The Legend album and people who love it, or support that aspect of his repertoire – it has only 2 militant songs out of 14 – miss the point. He was a lover, to be sure, but he was so much more than that!

I forget the quote (it was posted on the screen), or maybe it was an audio quote – at the end of the movie – to the effect that all Bob ever wanted, was for people to live together peacefully. It was more powerfully stated than that (but I couldn’t find it online). [I did, however, find a site devoted to Marley quotes.] 

I think of Bob Marley as more in-your-face than the passage of time (or even this movie) has allowed.

Maybe because of time and distance – perhaps the relative ‘safety’ of having him that far ‘away’ – maybe that has made it easier for people to get next to him, to be exposed to his message, and ultimately to ‘get it.’ He was a complex character, to be sure.

I’ve been speaking in overview, but I want to return more specifically to the movie itself. I ‘liked it’ – to the extent that I appreciated the painstaking attention to detail: dozens of interviews, integrating actual songs seamlessly (with thematic logic) into the story line, thousands of photos – no wonder it took years to complete. Kudos to the Director, and the whole team.

Ziggy Marley was co-Producer, and (interestingly) Bunny Wailer was listed as the Associate Producer (which was cool). The several clips of Bunny were elucidating – of the early days; the reason for the split (upon the first U.S. tour…of he/Peter Tosh and Marley) – and they represent him well – as a feisty survivor with integrity throughout. He, and several others depicted, were dressed to the nines for the occasion (of their interviews), yet as Bunny was explaining the gist of Reggae on his back porch, I couldn’t help noticing the broken down VW bus in his neighbor’s yard…

I felt mirrored, though, when Marshall Fine (of the Huffington Post) said “Why, then, even after almost two and a half hours, does Marley feel incomplete?” You can read his review to see why that held true for him. I, myself, did not feel any closer (after watching the movie) to Bob himself than I had been before. Granted, I’ve been on the Reggae scene since just after he died (so I know what’s up) – and I’m grateful for the education it gave my son (who’s 13, and came with me). But (and a few of the authors alluded to this) the record of serious, probing, and challenging interviews is scant. Yes, we do hear his words [and I strongly recommend 'the Bob Marley interview album,' which I could not readily find on iTunes...I had it only on vinyl], but most of what we know about Bob is relayed by those (selected few) featured, who knew him personally. This is a great strength of the movie – the combination of their statements into one place.

Also conveyed are some of the more powerful, public moments in Bob’s life (and legacy). There was the Smile Jamaica concert (he performed just after having been shot by unknown gunmen); the One Love Concert (when he returned to Jamaica from self-imposed exile in England); and the Zimbabwean independence celebration [whose PA/stage equipment Bob voluntarily shipped in from England at his own expense]. I had not seen all that live footage in one place, and each moved me – as it ought to move any sentient being – to tears.

Big stuff – but the archives (and the interviewees) do all the talking – the movie itself doesn’t ‘do anything more’ than (impressively) put all the pieces in order. Perhaps this was self-conscious, maybe the Director never intended to put his personal imprint on the story (or provide a take-home message). He may have seen his role – as a documentarian – being ‘merely’ a masterful librarian.

It’s a priceless statement, to be sure, but as a cinematic experience, it doesn’t – in itself – transport us somewhere new and different. ‘All it does’ (and this is no mean feat) is simply ‘open up the book’ and give us the cherished opportunity to look inside. I don’t believe the movie let’s us experience the message through more than vicarious means.

I’m not poo-poo’ing the flick. I actually don’t like armchair critics – and would hate to appear as one – most reviews are so impersonal (and often too academic). Their pieces are often cursory – if you survey them, even in this case - they’re too brief to explore any issues in great depth [‘thanks’ editors, and the reading public, for not clamoring for more…shame on us all for not demanding our authors dig deeper than the surface].

I consider myself lucky to have my own Blog, Site, and Newsletter…outlets to expound. And yes, there are also the Reggae sites out there (who generally can’t afford to pay writers). I didn’t find much of note on this new movie from my initial scan of them.

Also, all authors (myself included) are afraid to ‘lose the reader’ with extended verbiage. ‘It’s too long’ my colleagues complain, when they read anything that’s not just a few bullets ‘long.’ In these times, it seems like people’s attention spans are getting shorter and shorter. To have an opinion or really explore any topic in depth is perceived as presumptuous and too demanding on people’s precious time.

It’s possible too (by way of my own critique of these various reviews), that the writers aren’t really versed in Reggae, per se. When do they get to write about it? I mean really – look at the list of media outlets above – how often do they all line up to provide coverage of anything other than Marley-pertinent news? I probably couldn’t get their collective attention if I tried – and nor could 98% of the Reggae Artists out there – who are in the trenches of this music every day of every year.

I tend to zoom out, try to incorporate more of the general scene, implications and extrapolations…looking at how a given news story (like the release of this film) can be seen in the light of what else is going on with the music. For those of us who think about this stuff all the time – who live it on the regular – any treasure trove (like this movie) bears picking apart and really scrutinizing.

The Marley movie does an excellent job of setting the stage – Bob’s childhood/youth challenges – and his rise during the Ska period (his first solo single “Judge Not” came out in 1962, when he was 17!) – living/working first with Coxone Dodd (at Studio One), then recording under the tutelage of Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry – joining up with Tosh & Bunny, embracing Rastafari and co-creating Reggae. These are all important developments in community…as are his becoming embroiled in Jamaican politics.

Somewhere along the way, Bob becomes his own context, and the rest of the Reggae world loses its relevance (or coverage, in the film).

Even Reggae aficionados who love Marley can’t help putting his primacy into perspective, given the the universe of other (to us) superstars out there: Dennis Brown, Jacob Miller, Gregory Isaacs…the list goes on indefinitely. We can’t over-stand (we already under-stand) why Bob Marley still makes up nearly half of all Reggae Music sales.

Why won’t the world wake up to the rest of the Reggae universe? Somebody put it cuttingly [I’m not sure if it was Peter, I did find some Tosh quotes online though] upon Bob’s demise they said (and I paraphrase): ‘now there’ll be room for the rest of us.’ All these years later, I’m not so sure.

Author Tom Huddleston, of TimeOut London takes us back to the movie (as English commentators are wont to) quite critically: “The big flaw in the film – and it’s perhaps unavoidable – is that, despite interviews with many of Marley’s closest family, including wife Rita, son Ziggy and longtime girlfriend Cindy Breakspeare, we never truly get a sense of his personality. Memories of him are conflicting and contradictory: to some he was a holy man, to others a scoundrel, and so the portrait which emerges shifts and fragments, reshaped with each new piece of information. By the end, Marley remains as much of an enigma as when it began.”

Huddleston continues…”From Kingston, Jamaica to Kingston Upon Hull [in the UK], from Boston to Brazzaville, Marley has been held in mystic reverence by millions of fans since his death in 1981. But those who worship the man and his music tend to overlook the fact that he was an adulterer who fathered 11 children by seven women, that his attitude towards those women was far from progressive and that his treatment of his children was equally problematic.”

While Stephen & Ziggy seem to’ve made their peace with their father, Cedella [CEO of the Marley studio & label Tuff Gong, and author of 5 books, per Wikipedia] has still got some clearly conflicting emotions, which are apparent on screen. These are the only 3 Marley children whose commentary was included…there may have been more spoken to (but who weren’t featured, for whatever reason).

While the language is strongest above, the authors surveyed, and some of his ex’s speak to this - there is some sense of moral indignation regarding Bob’s ‘womanizing’ (for lack of a better word). And yet this was one of the most brilliantly handled topics in the movie (to my mind). By his own words (Bob speaks in the film, and again, I’m paraphrasing): ‘I follow the law of His Majesty – and if not clearly stated by Him – I follow my own law,’ which I thought handled the topic summarily. What amazed me, was the capacity of the women themselves (as interviewed) to acknowledge the raw facts; see through to the larger mission and meaning of their lives with him; and experience (and still feel) the love and compassion that seems to’ve brought them (many of them) together in his last days.

Being a cancer survivor myself, I can relate Bob’s sense of lost control. I didn’t know that the first signs of his illness came 3+ years before his demise. Nothing was done about it – either due to his own busy schedule; possibly poor medical advice(?); and his not wanting to mess with his own body’s locomotion. Medical intervention does not feature highly in the Rasta philosophy. Natural healing and leaving the body be are preferable, as a rule.

Somebody comments in the movie that it was his ‘white side’ that made him susceptible to the melanoma. The physician at the time suggested amputation of toe – or leg – which would have kept him from dancing, or playing soccer, which he loved (and was fiercely competitive at). At one point in the movie, he self-identifies with his dreads, and it pains me to this day (having been a dreadlock myself, for about 5 years), to imagine having lost them through Chemo (as he did, pursuing a combined holistic and allopathic medicine treatment plan at the end – both of which ultimately failed – it was ‘too late’).

Bob also lost his country for awhile – moving to England (his first residence pictured here) – where he could work on his music without the distractions (and dangers!) of Jamaican politics. Apparently it took the top thugs of both parties traveling to the UK to convince him they were willing to set aside their differences if he could return and lend his palliative presence to the nation. He did return to Jamaica – in fine style – and was swarmed like His Majesty (who’s thronged arrival to Jamaica over a decade earlier is also captured in the film’s annals).

Another interesting tidbit revealed was Marley’s lament that he hadn’t captured the Black American audience. Although he’d already performed for crowds pushing 100,000 fans, Bob was a pragmatist, and had the humility to accept the opening slot on tour with the Commodores…an excellent gateway to begin reaching out to this next, intended market.

It’s sad to think Bob was given a hard time about being ‘half-castle’ (or half white) as a child, when later, he would become such a symbol of black power – not as such (because he’s quoted as saying he was neither black nor white) – but perhaps his racial ambiguity facilitated people (even till now – there are Middle Easterners featured in passing at the end of the film – presumably denizens of the ‘Arab Spring’)…people have increasingly been empowered by his message, whatever their background.

Little is said – or known about Bob Marley’s father – Norval Marley (click through to see his entry in Wikipedia). He was an older man when he met up with Bob’s mother, and didn’t stick around…dying of a heart attack at 70, when young Robert was only 10 (in 1955). The movie tells about the cold shoulder he got – about a decade later – when he approached the ongoing Marley family business (not directly his fathers’), asking for any kind of support. His half sister (or other, connected relative, I’m sorry I don’t recall) notes how he – Bob – is now THE Marley, and the whole of them have become inconsequential footnotes of  history. Indeed “the stone that the builder refuse…shall be the head corner stone.”

Another footnote – was something not mentioned in the movie – and delivers another coincidental similarity between myself and Bob Marley (on top of the Cancer and the fact I’m also an Aquarius – or the sign of Joseph – born 1 day apart, 20 years after him)…we both have some Sephardic Jewish origins. You can check his father’s wikipedia entry for more on this. I think it explains some things, though I won’t explore my interpretations of what they might be here (and now).

What I will do, is wrap up this review summarily – there’s nothing else I’d want to touch on – this is the whole of my perspective on it. I would never claim to be capable of doing a better job than the producers of this film…it’s an invaluable resource that will undoubtedly bolster long time Reggae lovers’ faith in the movement, as well as attract new enthusiasts.

———————————————————————————————————-

About the Author: Kyle Russell was turned on to Reggae in 1979, when he heard “Kaya” wafting through the air in Brazil (where he went to High School). The music was so different, it seized his imagination. Later, on a college clean-up work crew, he was turned onto the “Harder they Come” album (also during High School). A friend’s radio show (at College) opened him up to the rest of the Reggae world – which led to an embrace of Rastafari – and growing dreadlocks (over the course of 5 years). Moving to Boston in 1986, Russell pursued a career in music, forming his own band, touring, backing hundreds of artists, and now providing Management Consulting and Promotional services. His efforts to share the music resulted in his founding & publishing Rhythm Music Magazine in the 1990′s, and developing a host of media assets since 2000: from the website Reggae4i.com to a substantial international Database, Newsletters, and now Blogs. He may be reached through his ubiquitous screen name ReggaePR@AOL.com.

About the Photos: many were taken from Wikipedia, others found on Google. None had the photographer’s name, so I apologize for not including proper credits for them. As their names become available, I will be happy to share them. The last photo is particularly interesting, because it portrays a performance on the Uprising Tour (at ‘Crystal Palace’), where the audience appears to be up to their torsos in water, much as Hindus on pilgrimage, or baptisms involve…drenching the body in holy water, to be anointed. Truly, Bob Marley’s music is a major contribution of Spirit to the historical wealth of human culture.

About KRucialReggae

KRucial Reggae (aka KRP) is all about Production, Promotion, and Performance! Long time industry pro, founder Kyle Russell has been a fan since 1980 and in the biz since 1990. Russell's worn many hats in the business: PUBLISHER (and creator of Rhythm Music Magazine); PROMOTER (regionally & globally); PRODUCER (of various albums) and PERFORMER (with the award-winning Dub Station band). Russell's been the Executive Director of Reggae Ambassadors Worldwide; Director of Marketing at BigUp Radio; and adviser to many Artists. This Blog's been created as a sort of streaming editorial, different from his other project-specific outreach (including his regional and global Newsletters and website Reggae4i.com, aka KRucialReggae.com). Our goal here is to go from monologue to dialog in developing and sharing our community overstanding (as opposed to standing under), and wise-speak (the opposite of wiz-dumb). Our hope is to provide inspiration, thought provoking encouragement, and invite new folks into the fray of advancing Reggae Music.
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2 Responses to (Bob) MARLEY movie review (and related thoughts)

  1. Michael McDermott says:

    Kyle,

    It was great to read your write up. My reggae background is a listener and a fan. Bob was never at the forefront of my catalogue. I have had many waves of interest in different artists in which I become a bit obsessed and buy up all the music I can find. Most of all I just love the performance of Reggae and the artistry behind the live show.
    I loved this movie because I love the characters in this movie. Bunny Wailer, Rita, Lee Perry, Ziggy…I was gripped to each word they spoke. That comes from my fascination with the Reggae culture.
    As a fan of you and your work with Reggae I would love for you to write about your connection with the artists and speakers in the film beyond the footnotes in this response. I believe you are beyond having to prove your merit. This is your blog so please give us readers some thoughts that we can reflect on.

    Thanks for your work

    -Michael

  2. Gerard Hadley says:

    Nuff respect due Kyle for the time and energy it took to write this review, I knew that it would be something grand with all the hype and anticipation prior to its release. First I would have to say I hope that you record and download ‘the Bob Marley interview album for the upliftment of the massive and crew. After reading this review, I felt as though I saw the movie all over again. It was very thorough and informative as well as conflicting because I’m not really sure from the review whether the writer actually loved the movie or just really liked it. But maybe that’s what a true critique is and not only did the writer critique the film, but also critiqued other writers and the readers(In these times, it seems like people’s attention spans are getting shorter and shorter). Kyle also burns fire upon the music industry by asking why Bob Marley still makes up nearly half of all Reggae Music sales. And bringing light to what “Somebody put cuttingly” upon Bob’s demise ‘now there’ll be room for the rest of us.’ “All these years later, I’m not so sure”. I find this part hard to swallow because the words of Bob Marley songs are prophecy to me even though I am forced to understand that he was a just man with faults like the rest of us but still a “Legend”. Kyle reminds me in his review just how emotional and upsetting the movie was at times. Being half white and half black myself. I’ve always identified with Bob Marley as sitting on the fence. I wish that the movie touched on some of the mysticism surrounding Bob Marley’s life. And had answers to the questions regarding the supposedly disappearancering of the ring that Haile Selassie had given him. “By the end, Marley remains as much of an enigma as when it began”, Maybe that’s the way it is supposed to be.
    GerryRicot AKA Sowa -G

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