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ReelTalk Movie Reviews
Music Is the Food of Love, So Play On
by Donald Levit

Usain St. Leo Bolt is Jamaica’s favorite international son for the moment, but between now and Rio that will fade as Bob Marley resumes gold medal step on the podium. Who, after all, tops Che on worldwide T-shirts? Films have considered Jamaica’s music scene, even to London Lover’s Rock, but until Kevin Macdonald’s Marley, none had gotten this singer’s immediate family’s imprimatur and participation. (Scorsese and Demme had earlier, uncompleted flings with the film.)

The recently released hundred-forty-five-minute documentary is again shown for a week at Harlem’s Maysles Cinema, “Back by Popular Demand!” to honor the Caribbean nation’s golden jubilee of independence.

Because future fame is not apparent at birth or growing up, dates and early facts of great names often are sketchy or absent. The early trajectory of Robert Nesta Marley can be visually presented only in small with still photos but is in the main captured in the words of relatives, friends and associates in difficult, seldom subtitled Jamaican English (and a few lines in Gabonese French). Some interviewees guess at the forces that molded and drove the man, but the talking clips of the vocalist/composer/rhythm guitarist himself elicit no more than short, enigmatic, guarded answers.

The documentary is not one-sided worship, particularly in regard to him as less than sterling husband and father. Seated poolside, widow Rita reflects on her “very shy” suitor’s courtship, their young marriage, the touring -- she as one of backing I-Threes -- and, wistfully, her mate’s open philandering notwithstanding “I wanna love you and treat you right.” The man who fathered at least eleven offspring by at least seven different women -- several girlfriends appear, including a Jamaican Miss World -- is characterized amiably enough by son Ziggy as “no lovey-dovey daddy.”

Daughter Cedella appears more openly dubious, anger barely suppressed at the indignities laid on her mother, at the restrictions placed on herself as to outside friends, and at the media frenzy that kept the family at bay during her father’s public death and official funeral.

The malignancy that killed him need not necessarily have done so. Loving dancing and soccer too much, he found a quack who promised to save his leg and cancerous toe, and he never did proper follow-up checks. A cap covering a therapy-caused bald skull sans trademark dreads, he is pale and thin at a last-resort clinic in Germany, does not collapse on a U.S.-tour stage as believed, and dies in a Miami hospital at thirty-six.

Calling his late bandmate and stepbrother “Robert,” resplendently dressed vocalist/percussionist Neville “Bunny Wailer” Livingston is the most revelatory about the demons that nagged. A single known snapshot survives of the white plantation supervisor who was his father by a black teenage girl (whom he married and to whom he was less a scoundrel than implied here). Bob’s great-grandmother used to refer to the youngster as “the German boy,” and “Bunny” and others say that he grew up in tiny Nine Mile and then Kingston’s Trench Town feeling a mixed-race outcast, “half-caste or whatever.” Starting out, he had been refused recognition and support by the white Marleys, two of whom are interviewed and react to 1970 “Cornerstone” lyrics about that rebuff. It is speculated that that sting may have spurred a drive to succeed and celebrate the Rastafarian-overlaid “songs of freedom” and defiance, love and togetherness.

In this context, he purchased the landed house of white mentor and Island Records founder Chris Blackwell, in a white Kingston enclave a stone’s throw from government.

As indicated in ample footage of studio sessions and concerts, Wailers personnel changed, Peter Tosh (McIntish) and Livingston venturing into solo waters, others coming and going. Marley alone grew into a phenomenon in the U.K., Scandinavia and Africa, leading to his being drawn into the virtual civil war of politics and violence back home (and an assassination attempt).

He remained puzzled by Afro-Americans’ relative failure to respond, adulation on this side coming overwhelmingly from whites. This may have originated in black radio and DJs’ reluctance to give island music airtime over soul and R&B.

This is as full a picture as is likely to emerge. Its subject would have smiled, less at the deification that has if anything intensified, than at a white relative’s “He has become THE Marley. Isn’t that amazing?”

(Released by Magnolia Pictures and rated "PG-13" by MPAA.)

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