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Marley: The Definitive Story
Marley: The Definitive Story opens with a scene of a port in Ghana, where millions of Africans passed through “the door of no return” to slavery in the West. From there we travel across the Atlantic to the endless, mist-covered mounds of the Cockpit Country in Jamaica, a refuge for the runaway slaves known as the Maroons, to the luminous, emerald-green countryside of Nine Mile in the parish of St Ann, Jamaica, where Bob Marley was born.
Jamaica’s connection to Africa, slavery and oppression is made early. The eye-watering beauty of the island brings home the point that it was a place of bounty, and worth fighting over. Jamaica’s savage slave history and enduring inequality shaped Marley’s life as much as it did his belief in Rastafari. “These locks,” he says in a clip from an interview, “these are my identity.”
Director Kevin Macdonald, who also directed The Last King of Scotland and One Day in September—which won an Oscar—is Scottish and lives in London. But he spent a lot of time researching Marley’s life, and he was given full use of the Marley family’s extensive archives.
He weaves old photographs, hours of film footage and dozens of interviews with friends, relatives, musicians, even the janitor at Studio One—one of Jamaica’s most renowned record labels—to reveal Marley’s complex personality and the forces that shaped it.
Over two-and-a-half hours a fascinating portrait emerges of a highly intelligent man, a country boy at heart who loved and understood nature. From the moment he was born, Africa shaped Bob Marley’s life. Being a “brown pickney” in a former slave society like Jamaica, he was rejected by his (almost) white father’s relatives.
He never knew his father; and this might explain his attraction to Rastafari, the brotherhood that welcomed him, and his connection to the Rasta elder Mortimer Planno, who became his teacher.
The film skilfully weaves old, rare photos of his mother and him, his early “baldhead” performances with Peter Tosh and Bunny Livingston as The Teenagers, interviews with his father’s relatives, video footage of his exhilarating, livewire performances and short, succinct clips of the young Bob himself to reveal how this deceptively simple, humble youth, who loved music and spent hours practising and writing songs, worked hard and slept little to get his music heard. He loved football and dancing, and he believed that all Jah wanted was for all mankind to enjoy life.
He was a man, like any other man, and open interviews with his wife Rita and his most famous “baby mother,” Cindy Breakspeare, Miss World 1976, reveal that though he was shy in many ways, he had no problem standing up for his right to sexual freedom. “I follow the Bible, and if something is not covered by the laws of God, then I make my own law,” he declares.
Stunning cinematography and aerial shots of Kingston, graffiti and film footage of Trench Town in the ’60s and ’70s capture the feel and vibes of the place when Marley was just starting out as a singer.
‘I’m a soul, soul rebel…’
What he called “the government yard in Trench Town” in No Woman, No Cry was part of a unique housing development in West Kingston that had communal kitchens and bathrooms, which nurtured a lifestyle among residents of sharing and unity.
By the ’60s this social and architectural experiment had produced a wealth of talented musicians, and Trench Town became known as the Hollywood of Jamaica. But opportunities for a ghetto youth were few and far between. One day he came home and told his mother, “Me finish with school. It nuh have nutten fi teach me.”
And with that, he sold his books to a friend, and picked up his guitar. Musicians, producers, even the janitor at Studio One, where he did his first recordings for Coxsone Dodd, describe Marley as a quiet, shy, intense youth who saw music as a way out of the “sufferation” endured by most Jamaicans. He lived in a small room behind the studio, which he even shared at one point with another musician, just to dedicate all his time to making music.
What makes this film stand up to its claim to be the definitive film on the most influential and beloved musician of the 20th century is the insights and revelations about the motivations of the man christened by his father, after his brother, Robert Marley, but who was ultimately and unceremoniously rejected by his white relatives, because he was mixed-race. This then was the inspiration for Cornerstone (“The stone that the builder refused will always be the head cornerstone…”); and the background to his message of unity and one love.
One of the many anecdotes that didn’t make the final cut was about Marley’s copious consumption of ganja. During his research Macdonald met the doctor who treated Marley during his first cancer operation. When the doctors gave Marley the anaesthetic, it had almost no effect and he was still awake on the table.
He didn’t pass out because he had so much marijuana in his blood he was immune to the anaesthetic. “They had to give him like ten times the normal dose,” according to Macdonald.
Marley’s belief that he had to spread the message of Rastafari and peace throughout the world gave him almost supernatural powers. At his last performance in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in September 1980, eight months before his death, he was in the final stages of the malignant melanoma that had started in his right big toe, the result of a bad tackle in football.
The sound check lasted for hours, Judy Mowatt, one of the I-Threes, recalls, and consisted of one song, I’m Hurting Inside. His body weak, the cancer already in his brain and throughout his entire body, he performed 18 songs, and returned for two encores. Although he had been diagnosed three years earlier, and had part of the toe removed, he had refused to amputate it because it would have meant not being able to dance onstage or play football.
In the end, he lost his dreadlocks, his identity. Chemotherapy made them fall out. He is seen in rare video footage looking frail and weak, his bald head covered in a tam, bundled up against the freezing cold of Bavaria, where he went to a holistic clinic in a last-ditch bid.
“I would have told him to come home to Nine Mile and eat some roast fish and callaloo and enjoy his last few months on earth,” says Cindy Breakspeare. Instead, he died in a hospital in Miami. His body was flown home to Jamaica. On the day of his funeral, thousands of Jamaicans lined the route of his funeral procession from the National Arena in Kingston to Nine Mile, where his body was laid to rest.
“It is very emotional,” said his son, Ziggy. “This is the most personal Bob film any one will ever see. You will cry and smile.” —Marley: The Definitive Story had its world premiere in Jamaica last week, on April 19, where Jamaicans saw it free of charge in Emancipation Park, New Kingston.
It was released internationally the following day, April 20, when marijuana users in Canada and US celebrate the plant and rally for its legalisation. (4.20 is a phrase coined by a group of US high school students who used to smoke marijuana after school at 4.20 pm.) Marley: The Definitive Story is now showing at Caribbean Cinemas in Trincity Mall
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