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What are the words that come to mind when you think of Bob Marley. Reggae. Jamaica. Rastafarian. Dreadlocks. Peace. Political figure. Pot, maybe? Kevin Macdonald’s comprehensive documentary captures all these elements of the famed musician and more. Speaking with surviving friends and family and filled with his music, the film chronicles a man who became known worldwide for his music, but became an icon for much more.
In 1945, Marley was born to 18-year-old Cedella and 60-year-old British Royal Marines captain Norval Sinclair Marley. His mixed race status in the impoverished neighborhood of Nine Mile in St. Ann Parish, Jamaica defined Marley as an outcast. His father married his mother, sent money, but provided little else. But Marley rose above race and defined himself as a Rastafarian and a Jamaican first.
His mother got a job in Delaware, but he didn’t like the States and went back home. The lords of music history were shining on us all that day. Marley began his musical career singing R&B and doo-wop. In Jamaica, he was there when the reggae beat was first incorporated. He would become the defining figure for the genre, which became the defining music of his nation. There is no question he is still the world’s most famous Jamaican.
Interviewed is Rita Marley, his wife, back-up singer, mother to three of his children. Marley had 11 children in total. Rita speaks matter-of-factly about being the one Bob would rely on to get clinging women out of his room when they had worn out their welcome. She comes off as a peaceful, noble figure. It’s hard to say if Bob made her that way or it was more like the other way around.
Political figure is one of the images that defines him, but the film doesn’t portray it as something that Marley defined himself as. He was asked to seek office and had no interest. He didn’t take sides in heated political fights, but was a victim of an assassination attempt, because one side was under the misconception that he was for the other side. With bravado, soon after being shot, he shows a crowd at a concert his chest scars. It’s like he’s saying, “My message is bullet proof.”
His music’s political power stretched beyond his home country to Africa were much unrest was happening. His “Get Up Stand Up” became an anthem for those fighting to stand up for their rights. “One Love” was a simple message of peace that seems to be universal in all lands. Not taking firm political stands also brought controversy when seeming to stand with African revolutionaries who would turn out to be brutal dictators.
The spirit of the man came through in his music and the film wouldn’t be half as powerful if it didn’t feature the music so prominently. His music was about human decency and bringing people together in peace. One of the most powerful moments in the film is when Marley brings two opposing political figures, who had engaged in a brutal campaign, on stage together to have them hold hands. That was Marley’s power and influence.
When I was a teen, I gravitated to angst-filled music that reflected how I felt. Now, I find myself gravitating to music that reflects the way I want to feel. Bob Marley is always one of my top playlists, because his music makes me happy. That is his greatest legacy for all who listen.