Bob Marley remains, as his Rock and Roll Hall of Fame biography attests, “reggae’s foremost practitioner and emissary.” Thirty years after his death, at 36, his estate still earns millions from sales of his music — his “Legend” greatest hits disc has sold over 20 million copies, and counting — and the omnipresent T-shirt that bears his image.”People love to listen to him at the beach, to hear ‘Three Little Birds’ or ‘One Love’ in parties,” says filmmaker Kevin Macdonald (“The Last King of Scotland,” “State of Play”). “‘Stir It Up’ plays in elevators, supermarkets. He’s become background music, background noise actually.”
And that’s what Macdonald, who did documentaries such as “Being Mick” before breaking out in narrative feature films with “The Last King of Scotland” and “State of Play,” wanted to change.
“I wanted to rescue Bob from that fate. If you become ubiquitous, you become invisible all over again, like at the beginning of your career. I wanted to understand Bob, understand his music, hear his music afresh.”
“Marley” is Macdonald’s critically-acclaimed new documentary about Bob Marley. The native Scot filmmaker was drawn to the Jamaican reggae star as a teenager and vowed to spend years tracking down the people who never talk about Marley, friends, relatives and estranged bandmates , to make the definitive film portrait of the singer/songwriter/Rastafarian prophet.
“Bob really is the only Third World Superstar,” Macdonald says. “Elvis grew up in poverty, but he grew up in the richest country in the world, at its richest time. The Beatles grew up working class poor, but they had working TV sets in their homes. Bob Marley slept on a dirt floor, quit school at 12 and lived in REAL poverty — rural Jamaica.”
Making his film, Macdonald marveled at how Marley’s laid back, mystical pot-smoking image, the Bob Marley of myth,” only stood up to so much scrutiny.
“He gave much of his money away, and sacrificed everything to get his music out there, heard, because to him, he was on a religious mission,” Macdonald says. “So he wasn’t a hypocrite. But he was driven, a real martinet with his band, The Wailers, rehearsing them 18 hours a day. He could easily have ended up a laborer, building roads in Jamaica. But his talent and his drive wouldn’t let him.”
Macdonald found Marley’s first teacher, talked to his widow and surviving children and his mistresses. He got bandmate Bunny Wailer to talk frankly about the man’s genius and his faults.
“I didn’t want to talk to talk to the people you expect to see in a Bob Marley documentary — Bono, Clapton, Mick Jagger, all those people who might go ‘Oh, he was so wonderful.’ “
Macdonald was going for something more rounded, filling his film with blunt assessments of Marley’s personal shortcomings and uncomfortable chats with a record company exec who signed him at a bargain basement price, causing Peter Tosh and Bunny to bail out of The Wailers.
Macdonald set plans in motion to make the film after shooting his Oscar-winning drama “The Last King of Scotland” in Uganda. “Maybe in the US and the UK, we’ve kind of tuned Bob out. But in Africa, Uganda, his music and his image are everywhere, still. He’s an icon. You see dreadlocks, see the T-shirts, and you realize he still lives on as an inspiration to the Developing World. They don’t know Elvis in the Congo, or The Beatles in Indonesia. But they know Bob Marley.”