The Man Behind The Myth
Director Kevin Macdonald goes right to the heart of the matter with ‘Marley’, his exhaustive doco about the life and troubled times of the reggae figurehead
"Two incredibly talented directors were attached to Marley before me," Kevin Macdonald sighs down the line from the UK. "I did wonder why they weren't making the film, and why they weren't finishing it. I also wondered, ‘Why am I number three on the list?' But there's an advantage to that, because everyone's so desperate to get the film done by that stage that they don't want to cause any more problems. They just want you to get on with it," the director laughs.
Scottish-born filmmaker, Kevin Macdonald, certainly knows how to get on with it. Though not widely and publicly hailed, he has a fistful of brilliant films to his credit (including the likes of Touching The Void and The Last King Of Scotland), and ultimately completed work on a documentary that had already left two master filmmakers in its hotly bubbling wake. The work in question is Marley, a big, expansive, and utterly absorbing documentary about the late reggae figurehead, Bob Marley, who lived life to the fullest and brought the world's focus onto the music of his homeland, Jamaica.
Bankrolled by high flying entrepreneur and film dabbler, Steve Bing (through his production company, Shangri-La), Marley was first placed in the more-than-able hands of the legendary Martin Scorsese, who had proven himself a deft and impassioned music documentarian with The Last Waltz and No Direction Home. When Scorsese jumped ship due to scheduling issues, Oscar winner, Jonathan Demme - who had directed concert classics like Stop Making Sense and Heart Of Gold - was brought on board, only to bail out himself due to creative differences. It was then that the project was finally handed to the man who would actually finish it.
Picking Kevin Macdonald was a smart and savvy move. As well as being a stand-alone talent well versed in both features and documentaries, the engaging Scotsman was also a longtime fan of Bob Marley. The singer/songwriter's classic 1980 album, Uprising, was indeed one of the essential lessons in Macdonald's ever-growing musical education. "I was twelve-years-old, and it was one of the first records that I ever bought," the director recalls. "Buying a record was a big investment then. I saved up my pocket money! Uprising is a very intriguing record; it's Bob's last real official release, and I think that he knew that he was dying when he made it. The record has a slightly apocalyptic feel to it. It's also got a real sense of spirituality, as well as amazing melodies. That's very important as a twelve-year-old - you need good melodies! It also had this sense of rebelliousness, danger and edginess, which made it - in a teenage way - very compelling."
Macdonald certainly wasn't alone. It was largely through Bob Marley that the rest of the world was introduced to reggae - the lilting, rhythmic soundtrack to the beautiful but battered Caribbean island of Jamaica, a nation bruised by a long and confusing history of colonialism, and later wracked with violence, crime, and a murder rate clocked by The United Nations as one of the highest in the world. A proponent of the Rastafari movement, Marley was a pot-smoking peace lover whose soulful but hip shaking music - as exemplified in classic songs such as "Get Up Stand Up", "One Love", "Buffalo Soldier", "Jamming" and "Redemption Song" - quickly made him a source of idolatry around the world.
To many, however, Bob Marley's major allegiance was believed to be with marijuana, and the resulting lax euphoria that it usually inspires. When he started work on Marley, Macdonald quickly realised that his subject was a far more energised and self-possessed man than most observers give him credit for. "Like everyone else, I felt that he was this lazy, pot smoking character, but he's actually not," Macdonald tells FilmInk. "He's far from that. He was absolutely driven, and wanted to get his music heard by as many people around the world as was possible. After every concert, he would take his band into the back room, and instead of smoking ganja and hanging out with the groupies, he would make them listen to a tape of the concert and point out all the errors that they'd made! He was that kind of perfectionist. That's why the band was so tight and so on it all the time. But his drive and ambition weren't about wanting fame and fortune, though I'm sure that he wanted his share of it. What drove him was religion, and the message that he felt he had to give. That was why he was so desperate at the end of his life to reach black America."
In taking the director's reins on Marley, it was this message that Macdonald wanted to get back to. In the years since his death, Bob Marley has been crunched into the grinding gears of the mega-factory that is the music industry, his messages of peace, love and understanding now lost in a sea of dollar signs. "It's been sullied," Macdonald says of Marley's legacy. "The purpose of this film is to turn you back to the art, and to the music. Hopefully, this film will make you hear the music in another way. That's the point of any biographical work on any artist. I certainly went into this with a bit of cynicism about the Bob Marley industry, but he ended up being more heroic to me at the end than when I started. I liked him more, and I listened to the music more than I did before. I feel like I know him as a man, and understand him as a man, and that's what I really wanted to do - to present him for people who only knew him as the icon, and the picture on the t-shirt."
Marley is released on June 16. This is an excerpt from a feature included in our July issue of FilmInk, which is out now or a digital copy can be purchased here.