donderdag 5 juli 2012

The tragedy of race : the documentary 'Marley' (2012)

Something seemed dubious to me from the start. The very first time I heard about the then upcoming documentary on Bob Marley, called ‘Marley’ – to be released in 2012 –, directed by Kevin MacDonald (known for among other things the movie ‘The last king of Scotland’), I had an unpleasant feeling about it. This feeling combined confusion and fear. It is in a way similar to meeting persons involved in criminality: you sense that something is not communicated. No eye contact, no open communication, you encounter subtle intimidation or what can be termed “avoidance behaviour”. In the same way I thought there was something tricky going on with this newest documentary on Bob Marley.


My mistrust was triggered by a few things. Not the least of these was the word “definitive” used in promoting the documentary film ‘Marley’: “the definitive Bob Marley story”. This is annoyingly arrogant, but can be excusable when this statement can actually be backed up somehow. The term “definitive” is however vague. Regarding Bob Marley you can ask whether “definitive” applies to the person Bob Marley, then what aspects of him and his life? Or definitive regarding him as person but also as musician, as well as his location within Jamaica and reggae music? And within Rastafari? Can it really be definitive in all these fuller senses, and can this be impartially measured? I doubt it. Does it really add that much to earlier documentaries on Marley? Or are we dealing here with commercial tricks?

I understood that the main makers of the documentary were not really reggae experts (though they were advised by some), which makes the boast “definitive” all the more astonishing. It is comparable to when, for instance, a white, non hip-hopper – an outsider not having lived the culture – would say he will make the “definitive hip-hop song”. Thereby insulting much of the scene. This is I guess the difference between a sense of superiority and a (healthy) sense of competition.


I had these feelings of unease, but had not seen the documentary itself as yet. So I still tried to look at it impartially. Is it really that new and good? Do I really get a new, insightful perspective on Bob Marley after having seen the documentary film? It was relatively lengthy - close to two and a half hours -, so maybe there’s a lot of new information.

I’ve covered the topic of Bob Marley, his image, and his role in reggae’s internationalization before on my – this - blog, so I could let it rest. It was, however, exactly the boastful propaganda and apparently extensive marketing surrounding the documentary that made me decide to review this documentary. I will among other things broadly (in my own mind!) compare with (some) other documentaries on Bob Marley, of which there have appeared several already, as well as with was has been written about Bob up to now. Like with documentaries – I think “biopics” is a word some people use – several written, biographical books/works have also appeared on Bob Marley (and unfortunately very few on other reggae artists).

This latest documentary ‘Marley’ (2012) is different from earlier ones on Bob in that it is aimed at the cinema and movie theatres, whereas most other documentaries may have been shown in theatres, but were intended for television or video/DVD. This suggests another, broader target audience of this latest ‘Marley’ movie, which seems to confirm my fear of excessive commercialism. Yet it is premature to assume that on forehand, so I’ll just start analyzing the documentary/movie.


The format chosen is of a sequence of interchanging people connected to Bob Marley being interviewed. Most probably this is edited in a certain way, as is common in many documentaries. Somehow exceptional is that there is no “narrative voice” as such. Then there are many photographs, as part of the visual aspects, shown according to the makers for the first time. This way the close to two and a half hours were filled.

These aspects in themselves do not make a good documentary. Yet, the list of people interviewed seems relevant and interesting: Bunny Wailer, Rita Marley, Ziggy Marley and his other children, girlfriend Cindy Breakspeare, other reggae musicians, producers, friends, family and others. I think his children (now older since earlier documentaries) are relatively “new” in Marley documentaries, and potentially most insightful. Not just potentially, as I viewed the film I found it was relatively more newsworthy what Bob's children (like Ziggy and Cedella) had to say, though some of the others interviewed had interesting stories and facts as well, such as Bunny Wailer. Also Rita Marley had interesting portions and stories.

The information on Bob’s white father – early in the documentary - was hardly new. The age difference with Bob’s mother of Bob’s father during the “conception” (an older, 60 years-old white man thus slept with a black girl/young woman of 18 years old) was even bigger than told earlier, but that also has been known already years before this documentary.

I hate to admit it but I had an unpleasant feeling about Cindy Breakspeare, the once Miss Jamaica who became Bob’s girlfriend (while Bob was married to Rita), and accompanied him on tour as well. She spoke relatively often in the documentary, and indeed knew him intimately. I felt a certain irritation and mistrust about her, maybe irrationally. Not because she was a “home wrecker”, since Bob had several girlfriends “on the side”. It was more her general demeanour and subdued arrogance that told me she had something to hide. “Everybody wants the girl” (if she’s a beauty contest winner?) she said without modesty about Bob’s interest in her. I am almost certain that she chose him – subtly of course – not the other way around, even if she presents it that way. But maybe she is a good person, I don’t know. Why the winner of a beauty contest in a predominantly black country should be a light mulatto type like Breakspeare is also beyond me, but that’s another issue.


The pace of interviews and of the changing of speaking people in the film were kept high and kept entertaining me, I must admit, even throughout the relatively lengthy documentary. In this I notice the hand of a feature film/fiction movie director – Kevin MacDonald – rather than a documentary maker’s. The pace was high, the suspense always there, and there was excitement, ”action”. Yet a disadvantage of such an approach became clearer to me as the film progressed: superficiality. Most things said I heard already in other documentaries on Bob, some even as public as nowadays viewable on YouTube. Some of the things were written before in books. Okay, maybe it is meant for another target audience (who have not seen the other documentaries, nor read those books), but still... This way it does not lead to new or even deeper insight.

Occasionally a remarkable comment was made, such as when the early Wailers manager Danny Sims stated that Bob was “chosen” to be the famous front man by record label Island amongst the original Wailers band (which also included Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer), probably because of his (lighter) colour. Those suspicions were longer around, but seemed confirmed here! Unfortunately this was not followed upon in the documentary. The subject was changed (read: abandoned), following the time line of Bob’s life. My opinion is that this is too interesting and socially relevant to not discuss in more detail.


The reason why further delving on this is avoided may be to spare Bob, and not give him a bad name. Racially privileged, yet presenting himself as the black rebel in Jamaica and world wide. But one thing I respect about Bob is the absence of this hypocrisy. Having read and heard much about Bob’s career and life – and knowing most of his songs - my conclusion is this: Bob was genuinely a pro-black rebel (not just pretending to be), a real proponent of black rights and freedom (and of all people), and at the same time – ironically – he was in a later stage privileged over blacker musicians or “rebels” around him, because he looked more European. But this was mostly later in his life and beyond Bob’s control: international, commercial interests dictated this.

It was confirmed by Peter Tosh in an earlier documentary that the group the Wailers was “one/united” from the start (i.e. when it were up to Bob). Another interesting anecdote is also illustrative in this regard: Bob used shoe polish to make his hair blacker, and to not stand out too much in Kingston’s ghetto Trench Town. Other stories relate about some negative remarks he got because of his lighter colour among blacks in Trench Town.

One of the tragedies of Bob’s life is thus race. A defining tragedy, that was beyond his control. It excluded him (sometimes) from people around him, while he was just as poor, and it made him be favoured without really wanting, ultimately resulting in distance from his old friends Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer, who left the Wailers. Had he been white he never would have grown up in the Trench Town ghetto. Had he been fully black, he probably would not be as (internationally) famous, and would have not internationalized reggae and Rastafari as much. Yet he never sold out, and kept true to his message. This is admirable.

This philosophical, sociological theme and contradiction could have been a major thread in the documentary, raising its intellectual level. It also would have shown how strong a personality Bob Marley was. Unfortunately the makers chose a thrill-based, Hollywood-like approach, too superficial for such deeper dilemmas. Bob was revered in the documentary as above human, larger than life, but in the insincere, superficial way of superstardom. More like Prince or Bruce Springsteen than like Martin Luther King.


Bob Marley was presented as somehow above ”reggae”, as the unreachable top of reggae. As I argued elsewhere on my blog: Bob had several good songs, good lyrics, charisma, and certain talents for music. But the same applies to several other reggae artists in Jamaica! He was essentially just another talented reggae artist, no more no less. With, maybe, the difference of relatively more commercial influences in his work, and better connections. I know there are other documentaries more dealing with reggae than with just Bob Marley, but you simply cannot make a documentary about Bob which is not substantially about reggae and Jamaican music. The same applies to the Rastafari philosophy and beliefs, which were very important for Bob.

This makes it extra troublesome that one of the more ignored aspects related to Bob in the documentary was his place within reggae, within the broader reggae scene. There was some attention to Rastafari – though not as adequate as it could have been. Reggae producer Lee “Scratch” Perry appeared for a while, without much substance, as well as Clement “Coxsone” Dodd, but not so long.

An interesting fact, for instance, that one does not get to know from this documentary, neither from other documentaries I must add, is this: there were US soul artists, like the Impressions, who influenced Bob musically and vocally, that is more widely known. The main Jamaican vocal influence on him is not mentioned. According to Bob himself this was Little Roy (b. Earl Lowe), a Rastafari-inspired singer with soulful, anguished vocals, active since the 1960s. One listen to a Little Roy song would make this similarity apparent. Bob was influenced by him, not the other way around. Bob himself in turn would later inevitably influence later singers. Apart from his sons (which may have genetic reasons), newer artist Nasio Fontaine sounds vocally “Marley-esque”. So do several other artists, especially outside of Jamaica. Marley’s vocals sound rather “Little Roy-esque”. You dig?

One of the people interviewed about Bob, especially telling about his Trench Town years, was Lloyd “Bread” MacDonald, member of the roots harmony reggae band the Wailing Souls: a band – I dare to argue – with as much an excellent body of work as Bob Marley & the Wailers. But the documentary aims to revere Bob well above reggae, it seems, as international star in a broad sense. His place within reggae and Jamaican music is unjustly sidelined.

I contend that the reggae scene defined Bob more than a sensationalistic aspect the documentary partly focused on: the fact that Bob had children with several women, had several girl friends and affairs while being married to Rita.

Regrettable, maybe, and probably inconsiderate toward Rita, but not saying too much about his personality. He was often approached by women, not the other way around, as said by some in the documentary (and as my common sense makes me assume). He was a heterosexual and the women were willing adults. Not so extraordinary, neither very immoral (essentially). At most irresponsible.

I think, for instance, that what is at least equally relevant is the question whether he ate meat: many Rastas opine that Rastas should not eat meat (who call it “deadas”); some say Bob ate chicken sometimes, so he seemed (if this is true) to take it loosely, and share part of his diet with common Jamaicans. He also criticizes meat-eating in his own (strong) song ‘We and Dem’ on the album Uprising. I assume that womanizing is probably considered more sensational for a broad public than dietary traditions.

Like I said, the stories and comments by his children were among the more interesting, including on how he was a distant father because they had to “share Bob with the world”, and he had always plenty people around him. Also the story of his cancer treatment in Germany was interesting, though not much new information was given. Also the coming death and actual dying of Marley in 1981 was related movingly, I must admit. This for a change included some new information, namely on how Bob and the other musicians lived the concert given in Zimbabwe in 1981, when the cancer was already strongly affecting Bob’s body. This was at least “new” in the sense of “expanding” on what we know.

Marley novices probably learned more from this documentary, but still not as much as they could have. They are in a few aspects even misled, I argue, though often the information was correct, if superficial. If the target audience indeed included Marley novices or newbies, some more information on reggae could have been given. Now its origins were sketched so broadly that it was almost the same as saying: you have funk, soul, jazz, and in Jamaica originated reggae, after rocksteady and ska. Okay, it was explained a bit more than that, and I also liked how Bunny Wailer describes reggae. However: the quick, too concise way reggae was overall treated made it seem like an irrelevant side path to Bob. I do beg to differ..

Rastafari was more or less explained, especially what it meant to Bob, but also quite superficially, in line with the rest of the documentary.


After the documentary the end credits rolled, which showed the name of (record label) Island producer/strongman Chris Blackwell as also involved in the documentary. That explains certain choices, I think. Blackwell had some merits for reggae, especially internationally, but I also am very critical toward his commercial watering-down of reggae, which was too excessive up to the point that it violated authenticity. I’ve argued this before on my blog. He was relatively influential, so his choices in commercializing and “whitening” reggae were likewise influential. Ultimately this contributed to almost permanent damage to reggae’s authenticity and international image. Just because Chris Blackwell wanted to make money. Placing Bob above and not within reggae is part of that, and is unfortunately also the norm in this documentary ‘Marley’. As a true reggae fan, and being very knowledgeable on Bob Marley, I can only deplore this. But maybe true reggae fans were not the target audience of the documentary.

Despite all this, I was entertained and “kept busy” during the documentary, and it had its outstanding moments. Nonetheless, after it was finished I asked myself: what have I learned about Bob that I did not know before? Not very much, I am sad to conclude.


As the reader may have noticed, I did in the above text not compare “in detail” with earlier documentaries that were specifically on Bob Marley. And yet, in a way I did. I departed from what I have learned already from earlier documentaries – and on what has been written - , and then analysed from that perspective the documentary ‘Marley’. It seems only fair to say what documentary on Bob Marley’s life and career I have seen has been the most insightful for me: it was ‘Rebel Music : the Bob Marley story’ from 2001, directed by Jeremy Marre. This was partly an Island production, but was luckily no “Chris Blackwell show”: it was interesting, with relevant people being interviewed, relevant information given, well-structured, entertaining, and educational: information given was then mostly new. The recent documentary ‘Marley’ adds little to this. (Hereunder a link to 'Rebel Music').

The documentary ‘Catch A Fire’, which I discussed elsewhere on my blog, mainly dealt with Bob Marley’s breakthrough album ‘Catch A Fire’ and was more superficial than ‘Rebel Music’, and of overall lesser quality, I argue.

There are of course several other documentaries on Bob Marley, especially when taking into account television documentaries. Some of these can be found in their entirety on YouTube. Some seem comparable in quality to ‘Rebel Music’, though not everything related is new. Information and stories seem to be repeated from documentary to documentary. You can even speak of recurring “Bob Marley documentary clich├ęs” . At times, though, documentaries expand on known information. Perspectives can also differ, such as through different people interviewed on the same matters.

Not that the earlier documentary ‘Rebel Music’ was flawless – neither was it “definitive” -, but overall it was good and informative. ‘Marley' on the other hand was entertaining, but overall mediocre, and – after other documentaries and books – very limitedly informative.