When legendary Jamaican reggae musician Robert Nesta "Bob" Marley died on May 11, 1981 at the young age of 36, people around the world mourned the loss and then started producing documentaries about his life and career.
I can recall exactly where I was -- sitting on my Howard University dorm room bed with my friend Phyllis Wilder -- and breaking down crying as word spread of Marley's untimely demise in Miami. The tears and the shock were real, because this man had a major impact on my life and on the lives of so many others globally, through his reggae-conscious liberation music.
While I knew about Bob Marley, and was (still am) the owner of most of his recordings, there are generations born after 1981 who know only his music, his iconic image and maybe a few facts about his life.
The film "MARLEY," which opened in theaters nationwide on April 20, touts itself as the definitive documentary on icon's life and career, shedding light on aspects that even the most knowledgeable Marley fans may not have known.
At almost two-and-a-half hours long, the film starts at the beginning of Marley's life in the green hills of St. Ann's Parish, Jamaica, in a little village called Nine Mile. Using old photos previously unseen, the story of his birth to his mother Cedella, an 18-year-old country girl, fathered by a white colonial British man, "Captain" Norval Sinclair Marley, is told leaving no matter unaddressed. In this latest film, young Bob Marley's position as an outcast in the small, homogeneous community is made clear. Being of mixed race was a liability in Nine Mile, and Marley turned to music as an escape from the teasing and discrimination he faced.
"I don't have prejudice against meself," Bob reveals in one of the interviews spliced into the film's script. "My father was white and my mother was black. Them call me half-caste or whatever. Me don't deh pon nobody's side. Me don't deh pon the black man's side nor the white man's side. Me deh pon God's side, the one who create me and cause me to come from black and white."
The story details Marley's rise to fame, the formation of The Wailers early on with Neville "Bunny Wailer" Livingston and Peter Tosh, and how that relationship dissolved once Marley became associated with Island Records founder and producer Chris Blackwell.
All of these stories have been told before both in print and on film. But the beauty that lies in this epic biopic is the range of interviews collected in the film from people who knew Bob Marley from childhood through adulthood. I fact, "MARLEY" is the only film so far, sanctioned by the remaining members of the Marley family: his sons Ziggy and Stephen, daughter Cedella and his widow Rita Marley.
This film is deeply personal because of the many people who make first-time appearances in it -- from his half-sister by Marley's father, who did not know that she was his sister until meeting Rita Marley at a dry cleaning store, to the mother of one of his children born out-of-wedlock, Pat Williams (mother to Robbie Marley), and his primary school teacher who remembers young Bob's musicality.
Full disclosure is also made about Marley's 11 children by seven (or, some say eight) different women, apart from his wife Rita. In the film, Rita is asked her feelings about being married to a man who had several publically-known girlfriends during their marriage. She describes herself as "more of a guardian angel to him at that time" than a wife.
Also deeply moving are the interviews with children Cedella and Ziggy Marley about the time of Marley's death, when they were called to his side in his final hours in a Miami hospital, as well as footage of his last months spent in Bavaria, Germany, under the care of holistic doctor Josef Issels at his Rottach-Egern Clinic. Marley's cancer, which started as melanoma in his toe, was terminal by the time he sought treatment, and the photos of a gaunt, bald Bob Marley are touching.
MARLEY is directed by Kevin Macdonald, who also directed "The Last King of Scotland" about Ugandan strongman Idi Amin Dada, and "One Day in September," the Oscar-winning documentary about the 1972 massacre of Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics. MARLEY, which took six years to make, was co-produced by Ziggy Marley who led the group with his siblings, Ziggy Marley and the Melody Makers. Chris Blackwell, of Island Records also contributed to the production.
What shines through all of the interviews, in historical footage and documentation, are the timeless songs that made Bob Marley an international superstar, and they are still as catching and relevant as ever. Several unreleased tracks of music are included this documentary, which for longtime Marley fans, adds to their knowledge. But for those who never really knew the Bob Marley story, this film is a cradle-to-grave intimate look at his life, and his short, yet stellar career.
"MARLEY is one of the most personal, detailed and moving documentaries about Bob Marley -- the man and the cultural freedom fighter," said Dera Tompkins, a colleague of Bob Marley's and producer of Washington D.C.'s annual Bob Marley's Birthday Tribute.
"Many Black people in America did not know about Bob Marley until after his passing in 1981. I would especially encourage African Americans of all generations to see this film, to understand that during the last phase of his career, Bob was determined to reach and deliver his conscious messages of African unity and pride to the Black American audience," she added.
"The main themes of Bob Marley's songs are the history, struggles, hopes, and prayers of Africans throughout the Diaspora," Tompkins said. "Bob was singing songs of freedom for all of us."
"MARLEY" opened at the Landmark E Street Cinema in downtown Washington.