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'Marley' doc benefits from family's cooperation

Matthew Odam
modam@statesman.com

What's the difference between an authoritative documentary and a definitive one? About 30 minutes.

So goes the joke that "Marley" director Kevin Macdonald told at the South by Southwest Film Festival, where his documentary made its North American premiere in March.

The clever line speaks to the film's 144-minute run time and also hints at the truth. But length has little to do with what makes Macdonald's new film a defining piece of work about reggae legend Bob Marley.

The film's bona fides hinge on the interviews of Marley's family and friends during his short life, a wealth of never-before-seen footage and, most importantly, the blessing and involvement of Marley's family.

Many filmmakers have tried to tell the story of the musician-turned-demigod, but none has had the access and support granted Macdonald.

"There have been a lot of things already made about him, but we wanted this to be definitive," Ziggy Marley said while in Austin for the premiere. "And one way of doing that is by actually having the family involved and having people who knew Bob personally — the closest people to Bob — being in the film and trying to show Bob beyond the legend of what he is and have some sort of emotional value to the film. We wanted it to be something people can feel."

Macdonald came to the project after the aborted involvement of directors Martin Scorsese and Jonathan Demme. The director of the Academy Award-winning documentary "One Day in September" said the family's lack of interference allayed his nerves about making the film.

"They wanted to make something that was honest and not another hagiography and not another piece of iconography," Macdonald said.

The film documents Marley's tireless career as a musician, whose sound evolved from his teen years in rural Jamaica through his time on Island Records and the glare of international stardom. But the most fascinating and challenging aspects of the movie surround Marley's personal life.

A falling out with former Wailers bandmates Bunny Wailer and Peter Tosh indicates Marley was a man of serious ambition who had a vision for his career and spreading his message. Though some aspersed Marley for changing the original reggae sound of the Wailers after signing with British label Island Records, Macdonald sees Marley's evolution as one born of his desire to share his philosophy and love with the largest audience possible.

"In rock music there's this whole thing of being a sell-out. It's one of these great clichés of writing about and talking about musicians and their careers," Macdonald said. "And I think the great thing about Bob is he was hugely ambitious and hugely driven, but he was never a sell-out. He could do things like release a disco version of ‘Could You Be Loved' and still not seem like a sell-out because to him it really was about getting people to hear his message. ... It's amazing that there's so few musicians who you can say aren't hypocrites, and I don't think he was a hypocrite. ... He was the real deal."

Macdonald makes no attempt to silence the voices and stories that revealed Marley as a flawed human being with noble intentions. For all of his talk of love and acceptance, Marley had a complicated romantic life. He fathered children with multiple women, maintaining long-running relationships even while married to his wife, Rita.

Marley and Janet Bowen's daughter, Karen Marley, said it was difficult for her to watch parts of the movie addressing her father's romantic relations.

"But I like that," Karen Marley said. "It took a lot for us to say ‘Let's let it out.' Our mom, she was a little leery about putting in the part where he was sick. But we wanted it out there so you could get the real him, so you could get the essence of him and not just as a legend. And even I was learning stuff."

Ziggy Marley, an adolescent when his father died at 36 in 1981, says the footage documenting Marley's final days battling cancer posed the greatest emotional challenge.

"We were young and kept kind of out of that discussion or the reality of what was happening, especially during the time he went to Germany and all of that," Ziggy Marley said. "We never realized how ill he was. We knew our father as a very strong man. ... So to watch it and realize all the stuff he went through, it's very sad."

Marley's somewhat controversial decision to temporarily eschew Western medical cancer treatments out of respect of his Rastafarian beliefs doesn't trouble Ziggy Marley. Bob Marley's oldest son's mixed feelings are reserved for some of the people surrounding his father.

Bob Marley spent a lifetime offering generosity and vulnerability to those around him, at times to his detriment, and Ziggy Marley recognizes that protecting his father's legacy has at times been emotionally and financially taxing. The new film, he believes, will give a clear picture, uncorrupted by agendas and half-truths.

"A lot of people were trying to cash in on the little that they knew or the little that they thought they knew," Ziggy Marley said. "I think this is a full spectrum, really. We try to make this be the real story and the whole."

Macdonald left his experience with "Marley" having gained a greater admiration for both the man at the heart of the film and his music.

"The thing I learned personally, though, that has had an effect on me in some ways is about the desire for success. It's a reaffirmation of the fact that Bob wasn't just born a genius. He was born with some talents, but it was about hard work that he did and the focus and dedication and the lack of hypocrisy about him, and that's why he made great art in then end. And that's a great lesson: Great art doesn't just come out of nowhere; it doesn't come out of the gods sending it to you. It comes out of failure and hard work and struggle."

Contact Matthew Odam at 912-5986.