Marley, the two-and-a-half hour documentary about the late reggae legend, was a hot ticket at the Hot Docs festival a couple weeks back. So much so that it was given a subsequent run of nightly screenings at the Bloor Cinema until the end of this month. Judging by the turnout at this evening’s 6:30 screening, it is still very much a hot ticket.
My first exposure to Bob Marley came on a school trip to Quebec in Grade 8. We were on the road heading from Montreal to Quebec City on a charter bus, when someone put on some greatest hits compilation of his. Thanks to the smooth reggae rhythms, I soon fell asleep, face pressed to the glass window. And that’s not being dismissive–the man has some great chill-out tunes. Alas, while I know all the hits, I wouldn’t consider myself a die-hard fan–but I was still interested in his story, nevertheless.
In that regard, Oscar-winning director Kevin MacDonald delivers, detailing Marley’s life and times from womb to tomb–even taking us to the places he grew up in, showing what they’re like today. Jamaica features quite prominently in this story, so much of the country’s history tied to Marley’s throughout the sixties and seventies. He really transcended music to become a cultural icon in his homeland, so much so that he put on a concert that effectively put an end to years of violent political gang fighting, and brought the leaders of the two rival parties onstage for a symbolic handshake.
Of course, we do learn a bit about the music, although the film doesn’t go as in-depth as, say, the Classic Albums episode on Catch a Fire did. We hear from the likes of Chris Blackwell, Bunny Wailer, Aston “Family Man” Barrett and various sidemen and find out that the signature “chicka-chicka” reggae riff was actually first created not by a guitar but a tape-delay machine. However, once Bob breaks from the original Wailers–namely Bunny and Peter Tosh–the music sort of takes a back seat to his greater cultural impact in terms of the film’s focus.
One thing I found particularly fascinating is that while Marley was selling out both Maple Leaf and Madison Square Gardens by the end of the 70’s, and drawing tens of thousands to festivals in Europe, he was playing to an overwhelmingly white audience both in North America and on the Old Continent. Though I’m sometimes dismissive of those white Rastafarians with the blonde dreads, it seems his fanbase has always encompassed that kind of people. Go figure!
Perhaps the most touching, revealing part of the film had to do with Marley’s final days, including photographs taken after he lost his trademark dreads to chemotherapy. As a result of his mixed-race heritage (one associate blames the “white-man side of him” for it), he contracted melanoma–skin cancer–which was never properly treated, and continued to perform as the disease spread throughout his entire body. From a holistic retreat in Germany, he chillingly states in an audio interview that he’ll be back on the road in ’81–but it was not to be, as he passed away in May of that year.
Hard to believe he was only 36, having accomplished more in that short life than most folks could in three lifetimes. And of course, his music still lives on to this day. RIP.