On a wall next to the spot where street vendor Mohammed Bouazizi committed suicide in December 2010 – helping spark the Tunisian revolution and in turn the Arab Spring – are written lyrics from Bob Marley’s Get Up, Stand Up. In fact, you can find the image and words of Marley anywhere around the world where class struggles and revolution still exists – as Kevin Macdonald found when he was shooting his Academy Award-winner The Last King Of Scotland, in Uganda.
It is this Marley that first fascinated Macdonald: not the musician, but the phenomenon who in the ‘70s was often called the ‘Third World Superstar’. “I think he’s the only artist of any discipline who’s become a huge cultural figure around the world, and who comes from the developing world,” says the director. “In his music, he’s talking about concerns and ideas that are concerns and ideas of people who are poor, and who are on the outside – the forgotten people of the world – and that fascinated me. And he speaks for them in a way that nobody else does; that’s partly why he’s still remembered so much, and why he’s still revered, particularly in the developing world.
“And then of course you’ve got the whole layer of the religious elements of it, which is absolutely fascinating. Rasta is a religion that’s mixed up with politics and the black experience – the experience of slavery in particular – so it’s just, to me, deeply, deeply interesting. And yet, nobody really – there’s been many books about Bob, and other documentaries made about him, and I’d seen a few of them and read a few books and I just felt like none of them were very good! They didn’t really capture the man – I just wanted to know who is this person?”
Macdonald, who broke through with the formally adventurous documentaries One Day In September (which recounted the hostage tragedy at the 1972 Munich Olympics as a thriller) and Touching The Void (which blended dramatic recreation and interviews with the two survivors of a failed attempt to scale Siula Grande in the Andes), plays it straight in Marley, interweaving stills photography, concert footage and rare interviews with Marley with current interviews with his friends and family.
“I didn’t want to have anyone appearing in this film who didn’t know what they were talking about, and know Bob,” Macdonald says. “I didn’t want to have, you know, just an academic popping up, or Bono saying what a great influence he was on music or whatever– I wanted it to be an intimate film with a lot of different voices who knew Bob well, talking about him. And hopefully by the end of the film these many different voices have evoked an image, for the audience, of who this man was.”
Among the many voices Macdonald enlisted are original ‘Wailer’ Neville 'Bunny' Livingston, long-time collaborator Neville Garrick, children Cedella and Ziggy (whose company Tuff Gong produced the film), Bob’s widow Rita, and even a girlfriend or two.
“Two things that surprised me most [about Bob] were firstly, how he felt like such an outsider in Jamaica, and that he experienced racism and rejection because he was mixed-race – and how important that was, fundamentally, to him and who he became as a man,” says Macdonald. “The other thing is the understanding that Bob was not a Caribbean loafer who happened to have a great musical talent – he was actually driven to get his music out around the world; he was super-ambitious, he worked incredibly hard. Apparently, after every concert – you know you imagine [the band] are with their groupies, and smoking ganja – but actually Bob would take them back to the hotel, and they’d have to deconstruct the entire gig. He’d have a tape of the gig, and he’d go through and point out all the mistakes everyone had made. He was a perfectionist.”
Among the film’s delights is extensive concert footage – including his iconic Smile Jamaica performance in 1976 (two days after an assassination attempt left him wounded), the One Love Peace Concert in 1978 (where he managed to get the warring political leaders to shake hands on stage), and his performance at the Independence Day concert in Zimbabwe in 1980 (to an audience that included newly sworn-in President Mugabe). More than anything, this footage conveys Marley’s unparalleled charisma as a performer.
“He goes into another world,” Macdonald agrees. “It’s almost as though he’s taking part in some sort of religious ritual – he’s transported in some way. When Bob was at his best, I don’t think there was anybody like him.”
This live footage is backed up by incredible high-definition and bass-rich audio that warrants buying a ticket to see this film in the cinema, rather than waiting for DVD. “One of the difficult things about making a film about Bob is the shortage of archive material, and the fact that what does exist is owned by different individuals,” Macdonald explains. “Often, somebody owns the film footage and somebody else owns the audio recording – it’s very complex. So my sound team [at Pinewood Studios], who I’ve worked with on a few films and who are absolutely brilliant, spent a lot of time equalising [the tracks] and trying to get it all sounding as good as it possibly could. Because also, we’re so used to having surround-sound music and things like that; well Bob’s music is mostly – certainly all the ‘60s stuff and the early ‘70s stuff – mono. I mean, let alone 5.1. So we had to try quite hard with that.
“It’s also just beautiful music,” Macdonald adds. “I mean everyone knows the famous Bob Marley songs, but there’s a lot of music in [this film] that people who aren’t big fans won’t know, but which is incredibly beautiful.”
BY DEE JEFFERSON
Marley opens in cinemas on Thursday June 21.