Journal of World Popular Music, Vol 2, No 2 (2015)

doi:10.1558/jwpm.v2i2.19789

doi:10.1558/jwpm.v2i2.19789

Documentary Review

Marley. 2012. Directed by Kevin MacDonald. Universal Pictures. DVD.

Reviewed by: Paul Long, Birmingham City University, UK

paul.long@bcu.ac.uk

Keywords: Bob Marley; documentary; Marley; popular music history

Whether in the form of factual documentaries or dramatic reconstructions, films are deserving of our attention where they formulate treatises on popular music. We should make space too for TV programming as well as other media portraits of popular music culture in radio features and podcasts. By way of example, music documentaries with a historical perspective offer original contributions to pop music scholarship, often marshalling original interviews, expert analysis and archival material. Tony Palmer’s landmark series All You Need is Love (1977), for instance, can be considered an early contribution to the historiography of twentieth-century popular music (see Huber 2012; Long and Wall 2013). Likewise, Ken Burns’s series for the US PBS channel Jazz (2000) or the BBC series Jazz Britannia (2005) offer original insights into one particular musical genre, its origins and development.

As the editors of the recently published collection concerning The Music Documentary (2013) argue, however, little attention has been afforded to this form. Furthermore, reflecting on contributors’ concentration on representations of “First World” popular music, they suggest, “Non-Western traditions of music documentary remain to be explored” (Halligan et al. 2013: 14). While Marley is by no means a non-Western film, it is important here for its treatment of a historical figure that Jason Toynbee (2007) has described as the only “Third World” global superstar. This status posits Bob Marley as a figure of particular interest for this journal in opening up a space for the exploration of such representations while recognizing the wider elisions of scholarship. On these absences, Morten Michelson has argued, while popular music studies has developed a theoretical richness in its approach to contemporary practice, this is not echoed in its historiographical perspective. This is a complaint of particular relevance here, as he continues: “as histories of rock have been developed into high-profile visual media accounts and have become reified through permanent museums and exhibition spaces, the need for a critical reappraisal of historical representations has become even more important” (Michelson 2004: 19–20).

In approaching films as secondary sources, one is mindful of their aesthetic objectives, their narrative and generic conventions and position in the political economy of the entertainment world. Marley, the subject of this review, took around US$1.5m at the US box office alone as the result of a limited cinematic release and has sold well around the world as a retail DVD (a soundtrack disc is available also). One should also note the presence of Marley’s son Ziggy and former manager Chris Blackwell as executive producers on the film with Tuff Gong part of the production consortium. Tuff Gong is the associated brand name of Bob Marley, which now provides studio services, music, TV, clothing and, moreover, Tuff Gong Worldwide “has expanded into the world of television … and into foods with Ziggy Marley Organics, which includes the world’s first flavored GMO free coconut oils and roasted hemp seeds” (website). We should note also that Marley’s director Kevin MacDonald is not renowned as a music specialist. His documentary work includes One Day in September (1999), which concerned the terrorist attacks on the Munich Olympics and Touching the Void (2003), a reconstruction of a story of mountaineers in peril. His best-known film is perhaps The Last King of Scotland (2006), a drama set amidst Idi Amin’s rule in Uganda. In the present instance, MacDonald has equally compelling material and sets out to tell the story of Bob Marley with a cinematic eye for spectacular settings and attention to character.

Geographically, Marley opens in Africa; it starts here temporally by looking back to the slave trade that explains the location and predicament of people of African origin in the Caribbean, the USA and UK. These are the reference points of the Black Atlantic (Gilroy 1993) that describe Bob Marley’s physical, musical, spiritual and political trajectories. His ambition was to speak to the diasporic predicament of the “Jah people” eulogized in his song ‘Exodus’, which soundtracks this opening sequence and signals the gravitas of the film’s approach and thematic ambition. Throughout, political and social details are broadly sketched or invoked in order to convey the contexts in which Marley was nurtured, exploring his complex persona and how one might understand his musical contribution and wider cultural role. Beyond the history of slavery, the sweep of Marley’s musical history is one impacted by and in turn informing Rastafarianism, decolonization across the Caribbean and Africa, and the violent politics of post-independence Jamaica.

The authoritative assurance and realism of documentaries such as Marley emerges from a familiar omniscient viewpoint, here eschewing voiceover narration with the filmmaker’s questioning intruding only on occasion. Omniscience is conveyed through the scope of globetrotting sequences (and God-like sweeps across luscious Jamaican landscapes), invocations of the past via some impressive audio-visual archive material and collages of sound and photographic image arranged around interviews with almost everyone who mattered in Bob Marley’s story. Thus, we visit family in Nine Mile and even his first teacher who recalls Marley’s early interest in music, a familiar trope of such biographies where the individual’s destiny is identified in their formation. We encounter relatives who shared the same father in the form of the white British émigré Norval Marley. This parentage is identified in accounts of Bob Marley’s sense of his outsider status, one compounded by his hybrid identity and treatment by his peers as a youth. The psychological theme of this thread explores the father’s rejection of the son, a relationship that at one point is identified as the root of Marley’s personal ambition and struggle against the obscurity of life in the countryside or Trenchtown. In this narrative, songs such as ‘Corner Stone’ (from 1970s Soul Rebel) are taken to be transparently autobiographical, conveying a sense that while the message of Marley was that his music aspired to the collective transformation of society, this is actually a story of the individual’s self-transformation and transcendence of the shackles of his circumstance.

Not all figures in this story are afforded the space one might expect and one of the regrettable aspects of the film is how little credit is afforded the place of Peter Tosh in this history. While Bunny Wailer is a major figure in the film, his presence and insight are all the more remarkable in illuminating how quickly and superficially one of the most celebrated incidents in Marley’s career is treated. This concerns the consequences of The Wailers’ signing to Island Records. Chris Blackwell arranged for the dubbing of “rock” characteristics to 1973’s Catch A Fire in order to aid its commerciality, leading to the framing of Marley as front man with his long-term collaborators relegated to backing band. In this incident a wealth of potentially revealing detail is passed by, such as the principled departure from the band of Bunny Wailer and, later, Tosh. Wailer was concerned that any militancy in the band’s music was diluted (“pasteurized” as Blackwell puts it) in favour of a desire to reach an international audience. This story is well known but might have yielded further reflection and insight into Marley’s commercial instincts and even his ruthlessness in advancing his position. These qualities reveal his contradictions: a less than saintly figure who nonetheless professed a primary concern with brotherly love, a characteristic that is often foregrounded in the film. His words figure in radio and TV interviews, from which quotes are often teased out in typographical animations, framed like the inter-titles of a silent movie to pinpoint their significance and wisdom. On the other hand, whether one cares for Marley’s music or not, or indeed has faith in his sainthood, the use of a range of archive interviews does convey his intelligence, reflectiveness, complex and sometimes contradictory persona. This is manifest not only in his treatment of women and his own children but in his attitudes to money: while his international success allowed him to make a base “uptown” in Hope Street with the Governor as neighbour amongst Jamaica’s wealthiest citizens, he also kept an open house, welcoming many who came seeking and receiving handouts.

It is worth noting that while one might expect music to play a part qua music in such features, this is not a necessary quality. Here, however, Marley’s recordings and performances are heard: there are over 60 songs used in the film. These include the sound of his earliest releases such as ‘Judge Not’ (1962) and those from his ascendency with The Wailers to Ziggy Marley’s recollection of his father’s attempts to convey a new melody and lyric on his deathbed. There are some engaging moments in which participants reflect on how Marley’s music was made (in the early days, involving the making of the very instruments with which he played) and how reggae and its antecedents originated. Notwithstanding a minor part for Tosh and a limited focus on Lee Perry, the film is most attractive in pursuit of the musical history of Jamaica in order to convey the artist’s well-established status in his home country before his “discovery” in the 1970s. Nonetheless, viewers seeking insight into the broad qualities of Marley’s best known recordings—from Catch A Fire (1973) through to Uprising (1980)—may be disappointed. While there is a poignant moment of reflection on ‘Redemption Song’, the last track on Uprising, a critical assessment of Marley’s musical progression in the period of his greatest success is absent. At the time of release, for instance, a pithy review in the UK pop magazine Smash Hits praised the well-crafted qualities of Uprising while noting that in musical and lyrical terms Marley revealed nothing new: “The overall lack of surprise suggests that he may have become the prisoner of the style he once pioneered so brilliantly” (Hepworth 1980: 31). One current critical assessment of this period is presented by Bob Stanley in his history of pop, who suggests that as a result of Island’s marketing to the rock world, “The intricacies of Jamaican music, for an easy sales patter, would remain hidden behind a dope and rasta mask.” He suggests that what amounts to Marley’s deification can be understood by the fact that “he wrote simple, anthemic, mellow brotherhood songs like ‘One Love’ … as niche-marketed and musically simplified as the Bay City Rollers” (Stanley 2013: 321).

Marley is by no means the first documentary about this artist. In fact, 2011 saw the release of Bob Marley: Making of a Legend directed by Esther Anderson and Gian Godoy. Anderson was employed by Island and makes some interesting claims about her influence on Marley’s direction. That her film features none of his music and that she herself does not feature in MacDonald’s film indicates that whatever the enduringly benign message of ‘One Love’, the cultural and economic politics of Marley’s legacy are carefully policed. In fact, in Marley, we do learn from one source that on his death there was what is described as a “bloodbath” over his money, an insight that, again, is bypassed rather quickly when there might be something to say about the afterlife of this artist. In 2012, for instance, Forbes magazine placed him third in its ranking of income for dead celebrities (O’Malley Greenburg 2012). Where there is a gesture to Marley’s posthumous impact in the film it comes in the form of a montage over the credits which presents a range of scenes from around the globe, where groups or individuals are seen singing ‘Get Up, Stand Up’ and the enduring ‘One Love’. This coda does have the effect of compounding the hagiographic tendency of the film although this is not necessarily a negative assessment when it is clear that Marley’s work has clearly become a resource of hope for so many. Ultimately, MacDonald presents Marley as a significant historical figure, appearing to escape the apparent limitations of popular music through his wider deeds and importance, yet in so doing, ultimately confirms its abiding importance. To some degree, this is one of the tragic aspects of this story when one considers Marley’s hopes for Jamaica, Zimbabwe, Gabon and for the fortunes of those of the black diaspora, which are issues whose detail fades from view while the sound of his music endures.

Documentaries such as Marley are interesting and sometimes contentious additions to our knowledge about such figures, their representation and how we think of popular music history. A figure such as Bob Marley has been the subject of a wealth of popular biographies, some of which are likely to compare poorly with this film when considered on the basis of research, sources and insight. Films like Marley are often self-consciously important statements about popular music. They attest to the value of music in their ambition to portray the picture of a life or moment with recourse to familiar framing devices and structures. For those who recognize that the parameters of any historical story may escape the rhetorical boundaries of film, or who might be prompted to ask further questions about a life like Marley’s, such work is a starting point. If Michelson is right about popular music historiography, such texts are invaluable and one hopes that what such films add to our understanding of popular music will be an ongoing question and point of debate for the contributors and readers of this journal.

References

Gilroy, Paul. 1993. The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness. London: Verso.

Halligan, Ben, Robert Edgar and Kristy Fairclough-Isaacs, eds. 2013. The Music Documentary: Acid Rock to Electropop. Abingdon: Routledge.

Hepworth, David. 1980. “Reviews”. Smash Hits 2/13: 31.

Huber, Alison. 2012. “Remembering Popular Music, Documentary Style Tony Palmer’s History in All You Need is Love”. Television & New Media 12/6: 513–30.

Long, Paul and Tim Wall. 2013. “Tony Palmer’s ‘All You Need is Love’”. In The Music Documentary: Acid Rock to Electropop, edited by Ben Halligan, Robert Edgar and Kirsty Fairclough-Isaacs, 25–41. Abingdon: Routledge.

Michelson, Morten. 2004. “Histories and Complexities: Popular Music History Writing and Danish Rock”. Popular Music History 1/1: 19–36.

O’Malley Greenburg, Zack. 2012. “The Top-Earning Dead Musicians of 2012”. http://www.forbes.com/sites/zackomalleygreenburg/2012/10/31/the-top-earning-dead-musicians-of-2012/ (accessed 1 January 2014).

Stanley, Bob. 2013. Yeah Yeah Yeah: The Story of Modern Pop. London: Faber & Faber.

Toynbee, Jason. 2007. Bob Marley: Herald of a Postcolonial World. Cambridge: Polity.

Tuff Gong Worldwide. 2013. “History of a Revolution”. http://www.tuffgongworldwide.com/#history (accessed 1 January 2014).

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