Marley: An Oscar Winner Creates a Warts-And-All Hagiography

Movies Features Bob Marley

Robert Nesta “Bob” Marley may be simultaneously the most idolized and least understood superstar in music history. A deep thinker and mystic, he’s been too often relegated to pro-marijuana rallies and college dorm rooms. The religious and political impact of his life and work have been too often overlooked in a lazy focus on 10 or so immediately recognizable hit songs. So having Kevin Macdonald, Oscar winner, tackle the task of telling a more complete version of Marley’s story is a welcome development, if one not without its own controversies.

Other than the subject of its release date (yes, we get it, April 20 is 420, can we move on?), an early heated topic of critical conversation revolves around the documentary’s relatively long running time of 144 minutes. But Marley was such a towering figure that if anything, the film feels a bit truncated. He contains multitudes; how can a more modestly sized film hope to scratch the surface?

“It feels like although Bob’s life was a short one, there’s so much to say about such a rich and varied life with so many great pieces of music that you want to talk about, that you can’t do it in a conventional 90 minutes or whatever,” says Macdonald, who won a Best Documentary Feature Oscar for the masterpiece One Day in September but is perhaps equally well known for narrative features Touching the Void and The Last King of Scotland. “People’s lives don’t necessarily fall into three acts and 90 minutes. I’ve made documentaries that are very strictly structured and do try to pretend to be fiction films in a way. That’s the fashion at the moment for feature documentaries. But this film felt bigger than that, more like a six act film or something.”

The initial cut was over three hours long, and when Macdonald and editor Dan Glendenning showed it to Bob’s son Ziggy Marley (who’s an executive producer on the film), they knew that was too long. So they began to cut. “The stuff we cut out was mostly anecdotal stuff,” remembers Glendenning. “I mean, those were great stories that we had to lose, and that’s a shame. But you had to explain Rastafari. You had to explain the politics of Jamaica. You had to explain Bob’s mixed-race upbringing. You had to explain all that before you could really understand who Bob was.” The new cut was nearly two and a half hours. “Yeah, two and a half hours, we just couldn’t seem to get it any shorter than that,” says Glendenning.

That was still a problem. Legally. Fortunately, the cut was good enough that it won the day. “The financiers had actually contracted me to make a two hour film,” says Macdonald, “but when they saw this cut they said, ‘No, you’re right. It needs to be this length.’ We did do a two-hour cut later and showed it to them, but it was missing so much; it felt superficial.” Fortunately for Macdonald, Glendenning and the rest of us, the financiers agreed.

Aside from the large amount of contextual work to do and the complexity of Marley’s place in the worlds of music, religion and politics, there was a very real logistical issue involved as well—cutting a mountain of footage down to a reasonable level. “I never really added it up,” says Glendenning, “but my assistant editor added it up one day and said it was about three and a half thousand hours.”

That’s three and a half THOUSAND hours. If an editor watched ten hours a day, seven days a week, it would still take him a year to even watch all that footage, never mind log it, choose selects and begin to put together sequences. “Most of that was archival,” Glendenning says, “but I think Kevin interviewed 70 or 80 people. We lost count, there were so many. And Bob’s a guy people have a lot to say about. It’s unbelievable. And now that I’ve been in Jamaica I’ve heard even more stories. Some really good ones, too. Everyone has something to say about Bob.”

To make matters even more complicated, virtually all of that footage came from 1972 on, and virtually none of it was interview footage of Bob himself. “The archive was different because although there is some good archive,” remembers Glendenning, “the majority of it is really poor quality and not particularly good. The Wailers had their first hit in 1964, but there was absolutely nothing archival until 1973. So it was very hard to cover his early life with virtually no archive at all, and very few photographs as well. There are also very few good interviews with Bob himself, so that was quite difficult to get across. He had a mischievous sense of humor, very cheeky. A bit of a monkey, as they say in Jamaica. And that was hard to express. He was a very charismatic man, but he was fairly quiet as well, and quite stern. He was very enigmatic.”

Macdonald also bemoans the same situation: “One of the great difficulties with making this film is the first photograph that’s acknowledged to definitely be Bob, he’s 16 years old. And there’s probably only about 30 or 40 photographs of him, total, until about 1972. And no footage at all. That’s a big challenge for a documentary. How do you talk about the early part of his life and career that’s so fascinating, the formation of him as a musician and as a human being, when you don’t have film? You have to find different ways of doing that.”

So how to capture those elements in the face of a lack of archival footage? Obviously the filmmakers couldn’t shoot a new interview with Bob or footage from mid-century Jamaica. In the case of setting the physical scene for Bob’s early life, the filmmakers simply show us footage of life in contemporary rural Jamaica. The footage is visually sumptuous, but it’s also compelling in at least two ways that even original footage wouldn’t be—the filmmakers get exactly the shots they want, and they’re able to raise, at least by implication, the question of why the same areas where Bob grew up poor are still so firmly in poverty’s grip.

It helped, too, that the filmmakers had a strong level of trust already established, having worked together on several films over a decade ago and having remained close ever since. “We’ve always stayed in touch and remained friends, but there weren’t the opportunities to work together once his [narrative] feature film career took us,” says Glendenning. “When Marley came along, though, he called me back up, since documentary is what I specialize in. When I started, he was still finishing up his most recent [narrative] feature film, so I had about four months on my own with the archival footage. But he trusted me to go through and find the pieces that would tell the story. He’d come in and look at some of the cuts I’d done, and we’d discuss what was working and what wasn’t, and then he’d leave again. He didn’t do the thing where he’d spend days in the cutting room with me; he’d just leave me to it.”

Glendenning has a special affinity for one scene that establishes the Jamaican setting. “I think the biggest luxury of doing a feature film,” he says, as opposed to the television documentaries he’s more used to working on, “was the freedom to let scenes linger. There’s this one scene of a Rasta just walking through Trenchtown with Natty Dread playing. And we following him walking through town for a really long time. You’d never get away with that kind of thing on television. Kevin was really encouraging about that, so we have these nice, long, slow shots that we really enjoyed. That was particularly nice for me, to be able to let things breathe.”

As far as capturing Bob’s personality, the necessity for indirect methods proved to be a blessing in disguise there as well. “We interviewed the family first and got their version of events,” says Glendenning, “and then as we interviewed regular people, many of whom had never been interviewed before, the whole story began to build and build. I had this framework for the whole film, and as each new interviewee would come in, it would add another little twist. We learned a huge amount through those interviews; we never knew a lot of the things in the film. And the family told us they never knew a lot of the things in the film.”

The result is an odd combination of celebration and tell-all. When it’s suggested to Glendenning that the film is a sort of “warts-and-all-hagiography,” he immediately claims the coinage: “Warts-and-all-hagiography, you’ve nailed it. Agreed. I mean, people here just worship the ground he walked on. There are people here in Jamaica, not to name names, but people that Bob sort of trampled over, and they loved him so much that they kept coming back for more. So I think you’re right. Because there’s no narrator in the film, the story comes from the people who knew Bob telling their stories. And some people’s stories probably verge on hagiography, and others’ definitely don’t. That’s the way Kevin wanted it from the beginning.” The Citizen Kane-like journey of discovery was not quite the experience Glendenning expected when he signed on the project; “Not knowing much about Bob,” he quips, “just knowing a bit about the music and his persona, I thought it was going to be kind of a lighthearted reggae romp.”

Of course, reggae music is often anything but lighthearted. Glendenning had been only the most casual of fans before working on the film, but the process has given him a new appreciation for the depth and complexity of the genre. That appreciation is showcased in one of the musical highlights of the film, and an especially inspired musical choice in one of the most troubling parts of the story. “The film is sort of in chapters, so obviously I’m trying to find songs that fit the context of each chapter. And there’s a chapter on women in Bob’s life, and on womanizing in his life. And the song that plays is ‘Kinky Reggae,’ which really fit, and I think it’s one of the better quality performances of Bob’s as well.”

“Kinky Reggae” plays in its entirety in that chapter, but nearly all the other songs are excerpted much more briefly, a choice that has drawn fire from some critics. But Glendenning stands behind it: “I guess the question is, do you have fewer songs and let them play longer, or have more songs but have less time for each one? To me, I thought it was nice to get a real cross-section of his songs. We let one or two songs play, but if you’d done that over the course of the whole film, I think it would have slowed the pace quite a lot. You needed to keep that pace and momentum going; it’s a long film.”

And in the end, it’s the music that has the potential to bring Bob back in the most real way, that breathtaking music we’ll all have forever. And the film has the potential to bring some of Marley’s spirit of unity into the theater. Ziggy himself spoke with a twinkle in his eye about seeing the film in the theater for the first time at SXSW: “The only thing I can say is that I saw a lot of love. They are very close to Bob, the people watching the film. Even during the credits, we saw people hugging each other and kind of swaying. It’s something different than just a regular film to the people. There’s something, I don’t know. They’re not just watching a film, there’s something that’s going on there. There’s tears, there’s smiles. I think most of them feel ‘This guy is one of us. This is our brother that we lost.’ And everyone very emotional about it, I think.”

A film can never bring that lost brother back, but it can remind us all of why he was so special, and perhaps even inspire us to emulate his best characteristics. Marley does just that. Perhaps the most telling part of the film actually rolls with the end credits, as we see people all over the world singing his classic “Get Up Stand Up.” “We had this great director called Michelle Kumba,” says Glendenning, “and she’s got a great eye. She ended up with the best assignment of all of us; she was sent around the world to film the legacy of Bob Marley. We were so jealous of her—she was in India and Brazil and Japan, she went everywhere. But we just couldn’t find a way of incorporating her footage in the film, and it was such great footage. So Kevin suggested that we use it in the end credits.”

It’s a fitting and inspiring close to a wonderful film.

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