The Scottish director tells SBS Film what he learned while making a documentary on music legend Bob Marley.  
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6 Jun 2012 - 1:21 PM  UPDATED 6 Jun 2012 - 1:21 PM

With a run-time of 144 minutes, Marley is billed as the definitive, family-authorised documentary about the reggae legend. Filmed in locations as diverse as Jamaica, Ghana, Japan and the United Kingdom, the documentary uses rare archival footage, music and more than thirty interviews to create a rounded portrait of the man behind the legend.

Oscar-winner Kevin Macdonald was the third director attached to Marley, after Martin Scorsese and Jonathan Demme. Macdonald, who is renowned for both his documentary (One Day in September, Touching the Void) and drama (The Last King of Scotland) work, had to convince the Marley family that he was the right director for the job.

“Even though they didn't pay for it and weren't directly involved in the making of the film, they own a lot of the rights,” says Macdonald from his home in London. “I went to see Ziggy and told him the kind of film I wanted to make. I was very straight with him. I told him I didn't want to make a hagiography, a film that's two-dimensional. I wanted to make a film that's more rounded; an intimate film. I think that was the thing that appealed to the children. They didn't necessarily know that much about their father. For them to see the film in the end was very moving.”

Macdonald's Marley is a personal story about the man who grew up in rural Jamaica, the son of an Afro-Jamaican mother, Cedella Booker, and an absent white father, Norval Marley, of who very little was known. “There is an intriguing parallel between Bob and his father,” the director explains. “Even after months and months of research, he's a complete mystery man. Bob is almost as mysterious as his father. There are very few interviews with him, and when there are, he's pretty unrevealing a lot of the time. He never lived long enough to get into a reflective mood. He was living in the moment for the moment. The extraordinary thing is that in the first photograph of Bob, he was 16 years old. The first piece of live footage was in 1972 when he was 28 years old. That is a real challenge in making a film. It means you have to approach the film in a different way. I started to see the film as an oral history about the other characters as much as it is about Bob. Those other voices hopefully interweave, contradict and evoke him to such a degree that at the end of the film, you have a sense of a grace-like presence. That's partly why the length was important to me. Once we discovered all these new things—found new footage, got people to talk who hadn't talked before—I felt it would have been a real shame not to use the material.”

The documentary tracks the ambition and drive that saw Marley form The Wailers in 1963 alongside Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer, then achieve five simultaneous hits in the Jamaican Top 10 and travel to the USA and UK to perform for Western audiences. It similarly charts his exile in London and his death at 36 from cancer in May 1981. It's a kaleidoscope of voices that together reveal aspects of a man whose compilation Legend is the second-longest charting album in the history of Billboard magazine's record-keeping and one of only 17 albums to pass the 10-million mark in sales (in 2009).

“I think the thing that surprised me most was how driven and ambitious Bob was,” says Macdonald. “Those are not characteristics you associate with him. He would compromise himself and his music in order to get ahead. He was always the one who would say, 'I'll tour with the Commodores even though they are a shitty band. I'm much better than them. I'll be their support act'. He was the one who turned the Wailers into a black rock act in order to break into Great Britain. He was the one to put overdubs and Hammond organs on reggae in order to reach that audience.”

Macdonald's interest in Bob Marley was originally sparked by plans to make a documentary to coincide with the 60th anniversary of the artist's birth, but that film didn't materialise. In the interim, Macdonald became interested in the ubiquity of Marley's music, especially while shooting The Last King of Scotland in Uganda.

“The reason to make this film, for me, was I had become aware of how Bob's legacy was completely unique around the world. He means so much to so many people in a way that no other musician does. People say they love Elvis, The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, but with Bob, it's a man who is a spiritual figure. It wasn't all about ego or money – it was about spreading a religious message. That was where he found his identity and his solace. Lee Scratch Perry said it best in an interview. Bob's music is still listened to because 'the story him tell and the way that him tell it. Him tell it in a way that you have to believe it'. There's urgency to his music. There's nobody else like that and although he's everywhere with his music, on t-shirts, people don't take him as seriously as they should, particularly as a third-world superstar, as the man who is writing about the experience of coming from the developing world and appealing to people from that world today.”

Marley is screening at 2012 Sydney Film Festival and will be released in cinemas on June 21.