A key point in the new documentary, Marley (opening appropriately on 4/20 and also available Video On Demand), happens when the director Kevin Macdonald (The Last King of Scotland) visits Bob Marley’s white relatives. He let both his second cousin Peter and his half-sister Constance listen to the song, “Cornerstone” separately. The story behind the song is that Marley wrote it after trying to go to his father’s side of the family, who owned a construction company in Jamaica, for money to buy a car so that he could distribute his records and was turned away. This lyric was isolated:
“The stone that the builder refused will always be the head cornerstone.”
With that context, Peter had a newfound understanding of a song he had heard countless times. For Constance it was very different experience because she too came from a mixed descent and understood his struggles growing up.
“How true that is,” she said. “(Bob) put the Marley name on the map. He became The Marley… and all of the others that rejected him went into the background.”
It is one of many, magnificent moments of Marley, a film co-produced by his oldest son, Ziggy and is full of stories and reflections by his family, former band mates and his closest circle of friends. It is the most comprehensive tell-all about the shy singer-songwriter and musician– a celebration of a man who became a myth. The massive collection of photos, audio recordings and rare video footage will thrill any music enthusiast but more importantly expands the meaning of the music. From the visits to the village of Nine Mile and Trench Town to the first generation of The Wailers that included Peter Tosh and Neville “Bunny” Livingston, Marley not only puts a story behind the music, you get a taste of what it was like to be around Marley and his scene. At one point, you will feel as if you were on tour with them.
It wasn’t always this exciting; Marley battled acceptance his entire life, having barely known his father, Norval Marley, a white Jamaican and captain in the British Army who was never around. His mother Cedella Booker, was an Afro-Jamaican and was a teenager when she married Norval, who was over 40 years older than her. In this rural farming community, Marley was rejected by the other Aftro-Jamaicans, making labor rough. Whites certainly weren’t accepting him either.
Music was his only way out of the bottom; ironically late into his life the only Americans who embraced him were whites, until a legendary concert at Madison Square Garden in 1980 when Bob Marley and The Wailers opened for The Commodores (I know, it should have been the other way around). But his hope to reach and unite people around the world was sadly only partially seen by him, as he was taken away from us at the immensely young age of 36, but the end credits show how far his ripples continue to travel.
There’s an enlightening experience watching the film. I came in wanting to know more about the man behind the music I enjoyed and got that, plus a deeper comprehension of the Rastafari religious movement and Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selasse I, the evolution of ska and reggae as far as what Bob Marley and The Wailers’ contribution, and the power of what he and his music did for Jamaicans and eventually Africans.
Exploits of Marley’s home base, 56 Hope Road were shared as well as some of the dirty laundry of his many children from several relationships while carrying on an open marriage with his longtime band mate, Rita. But to paraphrase the mother of his four oldest children, Marley’s impact, their mission, was bigger than to be hung up on the idealisms of the Western world. Much of what Marley accomplished was inconceivable.
The last half hour is dominated by recounting a few of Marley’s final and arguably most memorable public and private appearances as Marley delves into the political unrest between supporters of two political parties in Jamaica, the PNP and the JLP. We complain about political parties here in America but no one is shooting each other in the streets over it– well, not yet anyway. Marley’s music was ending wars. Not even a hit on his life could slow him down, nor could living in exile, and certainly not cancer, which had invaded his body without him even knowing until near the end.
Marley serves a large helping of Bob Marley, and thanks to Bunny Livingston, Jamaican humor. So it’s hard to write that the film runs slightly on the long side at a running time of 141 minutes. When you know so little about a man, you don’t want to complain when you get an experience as thorough, as revealing as this.
I don’t think I’m alone when I say that what I knew of Bob Marley could fit into matchbox. In fact, I’m embarrassed to admit it. His music and the meaning behind the songs took on the meanings of what I had brought to the experience. I knew of the political songs and the social unrest of Jamaica, and how it threaded the words of his songs but I never saw the seams and the patchwork very clearly–until now.
My knowledge of Bob Marley, his identity, and what made him who he was is now overflowing and there remains a thirst for more. Marley is the type of movie that will make you hunt for every one of his songs, to see what else you could connect to, and I’m not just talking about his greatest hits. To have a real foundation, a true grasp about all of what Marley brought to each song and the brief, but also the full life he lived, is to begin understanding Marley himself. That’s all one could ask in a documentary about Marley’s life, and fortunately you get all of that and so much more. Jah.