Soul Rebel, by David Bax
When weighing whether or not to go see a 2 ½ hour documentary about Bob Marley, one question in particular will no doubt weigh heavily on you. Is this a film for fans only or can anyone get something from it? Personally, I am not enamored of the man’s music and, like many who feel the way I do, I find the people who are to be a bit tiresome and irksome. Therefore, the prospect of so long a time spent in a theater confronting him was daunting. I can somewhat shakily report that Kevin Macdonald’s Marley does not exist strictly for the already converted but it probably wouldn’t hurt to be one.
Macdonald traces Marley’s life all the way from his birth in 1945 in the Jamaican town of St. Ann to his death from cancer in 1981. Thanks to the cooperation of the Marley family, he is able to accompany the story with the actual music, mostly presented in the context of the time in which it was written and recorded. Numerous, insightful interviews with former members of The Wailers, record execs, family and friends further illuminate the tale. A mountain of well-placed footage and still photography helps as well, especially when accompanied by some absolutely breathtaking aerial shots of Jamaica (Wally Pfister is co-credited as cinematographer). As we learned from Touching the Void, Macdonald is a skilled teller of documentaries.
The first chunk of the story, from birth to childhood to the early days of The Wailers, is an informative and crackling look at how Marley came into the world as the child of a young, black, Jamaican woman and a white, middle-aged, British man. His outsider status as a “half-caste” and the taunting and isolation that came with it are painfully described. That pain makes it all the more joyous when The Wailers achieve their early success in mid-1960’s Jamaica, launched by a truly infectious ska number called “Simmer Down.”
From there, Macdonald chronicles the effects of that success and the pursuit of a global foothold for Bob Marley and the Wailers. The film expertly captures the contrast between Marley’s ambition and his Rastafarianism (a religion for which this movie does great service). While his other, more devout band-mates balk at the unseemly nature of the places they’re asked to play, Marley is willing to soldier forward, either due to his own fame-seeking or his desire to expand the group’s message. Macdonald is intriguingly unclear about that.
He is, however, rather straightforward about Marley’s womanizing and the effect it had on his longtime wife, Rita, and his children. He had eleven of them with seven different women. A few are interviewed here, including daughter Cedella, who may be the film’s greatest asset and true star. Rastafarianism has some fairly chaste ideas about sex (alluded to in the film by former band-mate Bunny Wailer) and, regardless of religion, it’s difficult to defend a man who repeatedly refuses that he is married, despite having been wed to Rita for years.
It’s here the film starts to tip. Marley buys a large house in the wealthy part of Kingstown but his family does not live there. It is ostensibly a place for people to come together, make music, play soccer and have fun. Yet we are told that Marley had so many rules as to make the compound his fiefdom. Whereas Macdonald was forthright about his subject’s sexual transgressions, he is puzzlingly unwilling to condemn the man’s increasingly egotistical and controlling behavior. In fact, he even wants to celebrate it at times. Upon meeting one woman, he tells her to her face that she is “ugly” because she has dared to straighten her hair. When he catches his manager in a lie, he humiliates the man in front of all his cohorts by interrogating him at length and then physically beating him. Shockingly, we seem intended to interpret this as the behavior of a noble man expressing his noble worldview.
There are undeniably respectable things about Bob Marley and his actions. The things he did for the people of Jamaica and Zimbabwe are overwhelmingly inspiring and the sections of the film that detail them are exhilarating. If you’re not a fan going in, there are a great many things you’ll learn by watching Marley. But they’re not all things you’ll be glad to know.