Watching Marley, all two-and-a-half hours of it, is like diving into a bath of reggae — or taking a hit on a bong — and coming up with your eyes all bloodshot.
It starts at the very beginning and as the camera tracks over the impossibly green hills of Nine Mile, St Anne, Jamaica, a very elderly Mrs James, Marley’s first teacher, remembers that he used to love singing and she recites in a querulous voice a song she taught the class, about a little donkey.
There is a shot of his early childhood home — a corrugated iron house at the top of a hill — untouched, it seems, since then.
Only one photograph — a torn black-and-white one — is known to exist of his father. He is on a horse, his hat at an angle, with a short tie.
Cedella Marley Booker, Marley’s mother, met “Captain” Norval Marley, who was white, when she was 16. He was in the British army, but there is no evidence to suggest he ever rose above the rank of private. Cedella and Bob saw Norval only “a handful of times”.
According to Neville “Bunny” Livingston, who later played in the Wailers, Bob did not have an easy time being “mixed”. Livingston remembers Marley being rejected and that he was made to take on extra work by his uncles.
There are precious few interviews with Marley himself. In one, he says: “My father is a white and my mother black. Now them call me half-caste or whatever. Well, 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 man who create me. Who cause me to come from black and white.”
Director Kevin Macdonald, who also made The Last King of Scotland, told the New York Times he had set out to interview “everyone who is alive and was intimate with Bob”.
Sense of reservation
There are many, many interviews with family members, friends and musicians, but Marley’s private life still seems opaque. This is perhaps because he died more than 30 years ago, or about not speaking ill of the dead, so the film seems more of a celebration than a critique.
Cedella moved to Trenchtown, Jamaica, when Marley was 12 and it was here, perhaps, that he saw a way out of poverty through his guitar. Here, remembers Marley, the police would ask you where you were from and if you answered “Trenchtown”, you would be arrested. He often went hungry and, as the saying went, “you drink some water and go to bed”.
Marley “was learning a trade [welding] and I meet some guys who can sing and one of them was Desmond Dekker”. Dekker took him to Beverley’s Records, where he recorded the ska-inflected Judge Not in 1962. He was 16. After the recording, there was talk of changing Marley’s name. According to Livingston, Robert Marley “didn’t sound so catchy and easy and it was thought that Adam Marley would be better. In any event, the recording didn’t sell.”
They decided to put a group together and Peter Tosh joined on guitar. They called themselves the Juveniles, but as Livingston remembers, someone said: “You come from a wailing environment. People are always bawling; you should be called the Wailers.”
Producer Joe Higgs then took up the group “as a project”. They rehearsed for two years, with Higgs keeping an eye on them so that success did not go to their heads. They played in the parks for Rastas and in the May Pen cemetery for the “duppy [ghost] dem”.
Aston “Family Man” Barrett, later bass player for the Wailers, remembers they were “at a bar one evening, and one of the guys said ‘listen to this group’ and they punched the juke box and the song was called Simmer Down and no more other tune play on that box the whole time we were there”. Bob Marley and the Wailers was launched.
Around this time, Marley and Rita noticed one another. She remembers him as “very reserved, a shy guy” and others remarked on their “love and admiration, with a deep and underlying tension … music was the glue”.
This was also the time when Marley was drawn to Rastafarian preacher Mortimer Planno.
Black-and-white footage shows him holding forth at a meeting, puffing on giant joints.
According to Rita, partaking of the herb was “not just to get high”. It made them feel peaceful and put them in an inspirational mood.
In a revealing moment, Marley’s daughter Cedella says she did not have an idyllic childhood, remembering that no one wanted their children to play with the Marley kids because all their parents did “is smoke weed and play music”.
Marley apparently told his children that they did not need friends as they had brothers and sisters.
What is astonishing, though, is how many great songs he wrote. There is amazing live footage from concerts in London, Kingston and in the United States, which is perhaps this film’s greatest triumph. It is as though you are in the front row.