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2:36 pm
Fri April 20, 2012

'Marley': A History On Film Of The Man Turned 'Legend'

Originally published on Sat April 21, 2012 5:53 am

Do you know Bob Marley? Sure, you do. Maybe you're among his 33 million Facebook and Twitter followers. Maybe you own a Bob Marley ashtray, or one of 400 or so books about him. You definitely know a few of his tunes by heart — like "One Love," which Jamaica's tourism board has featured in commercials for years. But the reggae singer's son Ziggy has news for you: You don't really know Bob Marley.

"Over time, he has been summed up as just a ganja-smoking reggae singer, all love and peace — which is a part of it, but not the full story," Ziggy Marley says. "There was another side."

That other side is what Ziggy set out to capture in the film Marley, which he executive-produced.

"Being Bob's eldest son, I never read a book or anything that anyone did on Bob, because I was like, 'Who are these people?' " he says. "I reached a point where I said, to represent my father properly, I need to be involved in a definitive thing."

Ziggy Marley enlisted Scottish director Kevin Macdonald to make that definitive film. Macdonald is best-known for his feature films, including The Last King of Scotland. The filmmaker recalls his first meeting with Ziggy Marley as one of initial skepticism and eventual agreement.

"He said, 'What kind of film do you want to make?' And I said I want to make a film about the man behind the icon," Macdonald says. "We're all so overinundated with Bob Marley imagery and the commodified version of Bob Marley. His music is everywhere, and yet I never felt like I knew who the man was, and what he was really singing about."

But can any film really capture the man behind the myth? It's a daunting task — and Macdonald isn't the first to attempt it. British director Jeremy Marre has made several documentaries about Marley and says there's precious little interview footage of the man himself. The Jamaican Broadcasting Commission even recorded over early footage of The Wailers because the broadcaster was short of tape.

"He's a tough one. He's very difficult to read," Marre says. "He didn't give much away, he didn't give many interviews; he was deliberately obscure in many of the interviews. So how close can you get to the real Bob Marley?"

The new documentary relies on other accounts: interviews with everyone from Marley's mother, his wife, Rita, and two of his 11 children, to his only surviving original bandmate, Bunny Wailer. There are also interviews with several girlfriends and the mogul who took Marley mainstream, Island Records chief Chris Blackwell. Macdonald calls his film an "oral history."

"Bob's voice is quite faint in the film," Macdonald says. "But through all these different voices around him, you build a rounded portrait."

Those voices are not foolproof. Christopher Farley, author of Before the Legend: The Rise of Bob Marley, says sifting through accounts of the singer is quite a feat.

"Here's the thing with Bob Marley and any famous figure: When you go back and talk to people who knew them way back when, everybody feels that they were an important part of their lives," Farley says. "'I taught him how to play guitar! I helped him write his first lyric! I helped him eat soup first!' Everyone sees them at the center of the great man's story. Sometimes it's very sincere, sometimes to the best of their knowledge it's honest — but not the whole of it is true."

Farley's book proved that there were still revelations to be had about someone as overdocumented as Bob Marley. Much has been made of the singer's mixed-race background: His teenage mother was black and his father was always thought to be a white Jamaican in his 60s. But Farley says Marley's father was racially mixed, not white. Macdonald's film puts this other side of Marley's family on camera for the first time.

"I said to [Marley's daughter] Cedella Marley, 'I really want to talk to the white Marleys.' And she said, 'Oh, I know them — they're our cousins. We used to live next to them when we lived in Kingston,' " Macdonald says. "So she gave me the number and I phoned them up, and one of them was willing to talk."

In that interview, Peter Marley, Bob's second cousin on his father's side, talks about the time Bob walked into the family construction business seeking money from his relatives — who rejected him. Bob wrote the song "Cornerstone" about that rejection.

Another candid moment in the documentary is Rita Marley's admission that she was less of a wife to Bob than a "guardian angel," skilled at ejecting girls from her husband's dressing room. Macdonald says such moments prove that although his film is authorized by the Marley family, it's no whitewashed portrait.

"You only have to see the film to know that they're not being very protective, because there's a lot of stuff which one would think Rita might find difficult, to do with other women in Bob's life — and there were many, many of them," Macdonald says.

Authorized or not, the new documentary does not solve the biggest mystery about Bob Marley: Who was behind the attack on his life in 1976, when bullets were fired on his Kingston home? One of the Jamaican political parties' gang enforcers, or the CIA, anxious about Marley's influence? Unsolved mysteries like that, author Farley says, ultimately fuel the Marley industry.

"That is part of the fascination with Bob Marley," Farley says. "No matter how close you get to him — like those mountains in Jamaica, shrouded by mist — you keep walking toward them and they are still shrouded by mist. There's still more to find, a path to get past the mist."

That adds up to good news for authors and filmmakers: When it comes to Bob Marley, it seems, there's no such thing as the last word.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block. Thirty-one years after his death, Jamaican singer Bob Marley is an industry. His most popular album has sold more than 10 million copies, and he's been used to brand everything from clothing and coffee to his own museum and a resort in the Bahamas. But he's also still something of a mystery. A new documentary simply called "Marley" was authorized by the singer's family, and as Baz Dreisinger reports, it was meant to separate man from myth.

BAZ DREISINGER, BYLINE: Do you know Bob Marley?

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ONE LOVE")

DREISINGER: Sure, you do. Maybe you're among his 33 million Facebook and Twitter followers. Maybe you own a Bob Marley ashtray or one of 400 or so books about him. And you definitely know this tune by heart.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ONE LOVE")

BOB MARLEY: (Signing) One love, one heart, let's get together and feel all right. Hear the children crying. One love.

DREISINGER: But the singer's son, Ziggy, has news for you: You don't really know Bob Marley.

ZIGGY MARLEY: Over times, he has been summed up to be like a ganja-smoking reggae singer who, you know, he's all love and peace, which is a part of it, but not the full story. You know, Bob is a revolutionary, so there's more to him than the smoking weed, love and peace. There's other side of him.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: That other side is what Ziggy Marley set out to capture in the film "Marley," which he executive-produced.

MARLEY: Being Bob's eldest son, I never read a book that anybody wrote or watched, read anything that anybody did on Bob, you know, because I was like, who are these people? You know, what them know? So I reached a point where I felt like, all right, to represent my father properly, I need to be involved in a definitive thing.

DREISINGER: Ziggy enlisted Scottish director Kevin MacDonald to make that definitive film. MacDonald is best known for his features, including "The Last King of Scotland." The filmmaker recalls his first meeting with Ziggy Marley.

KEVIN MACDONALD: You know, he said what kind of film are you going to make? I said I don't really know. But I just want to make a film that's about the man behind the icon. You know, we're all so overinundated with Bob Marley imagery and the sort of commodified version of Bob Marley. His music is everywhere, and yet, I never felt like I knew who the man was and what was he really singing about.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EXODUS")

MARLEY: (Signing) Open your eyes and look within. Are you satisfied with the life you're living? We know where we're going. We know where we're from. We're leaving Babylon, yeah. We're going to our father's land. Exodus, oh, yeah.

DREISINGER: Can any film really capture the man behind the myth? It's a daunting task, and MacDonald isn't the first to attempt it. British director Jeremy Marre made several documentaries about Marley and explains that there is precious little interview footage of the man himself. The Jamaican Broadcasting Commission even recorded over early footage of The Wailers because the broadcaster was short of tape.

JEREMY MARRE: He's a tough one. He's very difficult to read. He didn't give much away. He gave few interviews. He was deliberately obscure in many of the interviews. So how close can you get to the real Bob Marley?

DREISINGER: The new documentary relies on other accounts: interviews with everyone from Marley's mother, his wife Rita and two of his 11 children, to his only surviving original band mate, Bunny Wailer.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "MARLEY")

BUNNY WAILER: We used to listen to groups like Frankie Lymon and The Teenagers, The Drifters, The Platters. So there was a recruitment process taking place. Myself and Robert started to put a group together.

DREISINGER: There are also interviews with several girlfriends and the mogul who took Marley mainstream: Island Records chief Chris Blackwell. Kevin MacDonald calls his film an oral history.

MACDONALD: Bob's voice is quite faint in the film, but through these different voices around him, you build up, hopefully, a rounded portrait.

DREISINGER: Those voices, though, are not foolproof. Christopher Farley, author of "Before the Legend: The Rise of Bob Marley," says sifting through accounts of the singer is quite a feat.

CHRISTOPHER FARLEY: Well, here's the thing with Bob Marley and almost any famous figure: When you go back and talk to people that knew them way back when, everybody feels that they were an important part of their lives, like, oh, I taught him how to play guitar. Oh, I helped him write his first lyric. Or, you know, I helped him eat soup first. You know, everyone sees them at the center of the great man's story. And sometimes it's very sincere, sometimes to the best of their knowledge they're being honest, but not the whole of it is true.

DREISINGER: Farley's book proved that there were still revelations to be had about someone as over-documented as Bob Marley. Much has been made of the singer's mixed-race background. His teenage mother was black, and his father was always thought to be a white Jamaican in his 60s. But Farley asserted that Marley's father was racially mixed, not white. MacDonald's film puts this other side of Bob's family on camera for the first time.

MACDONALD: I said to Cedella Marley, Bob's eldest daughter, I said, you know, I really want to talk to the white Marleys. Where are they? She said, oh, I know them. They're our cousins. Yeah. We used to live next to them when we lived in Kingston. So she gave me the number, and I phoned them up. And one of them was willing to talk.

DREISINGER: In the interview, Peter Marley, Bob's second cousin on his father's side, addresses the time Bob walked into the family construction business seeking money from his relatives who rejected him.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CORNERSTONE")

DREISINGER: Bob wrote the song "Cornerstone" about that rejection.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CORNERSTONE")

MARLEY: (Singing) You're a builder. La, la, la, la, la, la. Here I am a stone. La, la, la, la, la, la. Don't you pick and refuse me. Sha, la, la, la, la, la. Because the things people refuse are the things they should use. Do you hear me?

DREISINGER: Other candid moments in the documentary include Rita Marley's admission that she was less of a wife to Bob than a guardian angel skilled at ejecting girls from her husband's dressing room.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "MARLEY")

RITA MARLEY: By that time, I was past the surface of being just a wife because of the importance of who I knew Bob is. I didn't see it as a fun trip. We were on a mission. It was like an evangelist campaign to bring people closer to God .

DREISINGER: Director Kevin MacDonald says such moments prove that although his film is authorized by the Marley family, it's no whitewashed portrait.

MACDONALD: You only have to see the film to see that they're not being very protective because there's a lot of stuff which one would think Rita might find difficult to do with other women in Bob's life, and there were many, many of them.

DREISINGER: Authorized or not, the new documentary does not solve the biggest mystery about Bob Marley: Who was behind the attack on his life in 1976 when bullets were fired on his Kingston home? Theories range from Jamaican political parties' gang enforcers to the CIA anxious about Marley's influence. Unsolved mysteries like that, says author Christopher Farley, ultimately fuel the Marley industry.

FARLEY: That, again, is part of the fascination with Bob Marley where no matter how close you get to him, like those mountains in Jamaica, shrouded by mist, you keep walking toward them, they're still shrouded by mist. There's still more to find. There's still a path that you need to go up to get higher up, to get past the mist. And Bob Marley is sort of like that. There's mountains that have - always receding into the mist.

DREISINGER: And that adds up to good news for authors and filmmakers: When it comes to Bob Marley, it seems, there's no such thing as the last word. For NPR News, I'm Baz Dreisinger.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SOUL REBEL")

MARLEY: (Singing) I'm a rebel. I'm a rebel, soul rebel. Do you hear them lippy? I'm a capturer, gossip around the corner, soul adventurer. How they adventure on me, y'all. But see the morning sun on the hillside. Not living good, travel wide. Said I'm a living... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.