Duppy Conqueror

alt‘Marley’ director Kevin Macdonald creates the definitive documentary of the reggae star’s life and death

Dead rock stars are a dime a dozen, but a rock star dead by natural causes is a rarity. The last minutes of the documentary film Marley recount Bob Marley’s physical decline from vibrant performer to diminished cancer patient, before his death in 1981 at the age of 36.  It is difficult to watch. In one heart-breaking scene, a friend recalls the moment when Marley loses his dreadlocks. Weakened from metastasized melanoma, his body could no longer bear the weight of the long, thick, matted hair. In the presence of friends and family, Marley’s dreadlocks—worldly representations of his spiritual self and the religion that defined him—were snipped away.

Marley and his group, The Wailers, introduced Jamaican reggae music to the world in the early 1970s, and his work continues to inspire multiple generations of music fans. But he was more than a musician. Marley defined himself by his religion, Rastafarianism, and he remained a devoted Rastafarian throughout his career. His music served as a conduit through which to spread the word of Jah, the Rasta name for God. Rastafarians believe in universal peace and love, the rejection of materialism and Western society, or Babylon, and the inevitable return of the descendants of black slaves to Africa, the Rastafarian promised land. Those principles drove Marley’s actions and his music until his death. 

While Marley bio docs abound, the first-person retelling of intimate moments earns Marley bragging rights as the definitive Bob Marley documentary. The film succeeds because, with Marley’s oldest son, Ziggy, on board as a producer, director Kevin Macdonald (The Last King of Scotland) enjoyed unprecedented access to Marley’s closest friends, family members and colleagues. The film includes rare and extensive interviews with Marley’s wife, Rita; his longtime girlfriend, Cindy Breakspeare; Ziggy and Cedella Marley, the oldest of his biological children; original band mate Bunny Wailer; and Island Records founder Chris Blackwell, who produced the Wailers’ first international hit album, Catch a Fire, released in 1973, launching Marley into global superstar status.

The resulting film delivers a lush, layered and deeply personal portrait. Reaching beyond the more well-known aspects of Marley’s life, Marley uncovers some surprising and often touching moments. And with unparalleled access to Marley companions’ personal archives, the film debuts a number of photos, recordings and film footage never before released on a mass scale.

The documentary allows the audience to delve deep into Marley’s personal life. Cedella’s tearful recollection of her father’s dying moments juxtaposed with her unapologetic criticism of his womanizing drives home the complex nature of his family’s structure and reveals the scars it left behind. He fathered 11 children by seven women (he also adopted two of Rita’s children by other men), but he was largely absent from their lives. Rita, who toured with him throughout his career as a back-up singer, claims that his philandering didn’t bother her. Marital fidelity, she argues, is a Western value that Rastafarians reject. The marriage evolved into a deeper partnership supporting their joint (ahem) quest to spread the word of Jah around the world, she says.

Other stories reveal Marley’s struggle with his own identity. Born to a black mother and a white father, a young Marley struggled to fit in, in racially divided Jamaica in the 1950s and ’60s. He suffered the contempt of his black peers for being a “half-caste.” Rejection by his father’s family appears to have deeply hurt him as well as motivated him. According to the film, Marley’s father, Norval Marley, saw him only a few times as he was growing up. Later, when the Wailers needed funding for a record, Marley sought money from the company that his father (by then deceased) founded. As one can imagine, a dreadlocked black man entering a white-run business in Jamaica in the 1960s, claiming to be the founder’s son and asking for money, didn’t produce the desired result. He left quickly, empty-handed. However, the incident drove him harder to achieve success with his music.

For all the heaviness of rejection, racial tensions and death, the film expertly weaves in swaths of lighter moments. According to one little-known story (it was a surprise to Ziggy, he told the audience at the South by Southwest Film Festival in Austin, Texas last month) the Wailers’ first manager compelled the group to rehearse after dark in a cemetery. If they could conquer their fear of “duppies,” or ghosts, he reasoned, they could overcome their stage fright. (Perhaps the inspiration of the song “Duppy Conqueror?”) 

One gem dug out of the archives is an early Wailers recording of “No Woman No Cry,” featuring Peter Tosh on keyboards. The recording is a snappier, sparser version of the song that was later released on Marley’s 1974’s Natty Dread, illustrating Blackwell’s pop influence on Marley’s sound.

That’s all interesting stuff and makes for a good documentary about a rock star, but the film reaches further by successfully conveying the message that Marley was not your typical rock star. He possessed a certain purity of spirit (even if he did cheat on his wife) that makes his death feel more deeply tragic than the cliché celebrity death-inducing overdose or drinking binge. Yes, he smoked lots of marijuana (a Rastafarian religious ritual) but he avoided the self-destructive behavior that shattered many of his peers. Throughout his rocket ride to fame and fortune, he continued to live by the principles of his religion.

In a TV interview shown in the film, the interviewer asks Marley if he was a rich man.

“What do you mean, rich?” Marley asks in his thick Jamaican accent.

“Do you have a lot of possessions, a lot of money in the bank,” the interviewer clarifies.

“I don’t have that type of richness,” Marley says. “My richness is life, forever.”

His fans left on Earth will be glad to have the film Marley to remind them of his all-too-brief mortal visit.

Marley ★★★1/2 (out of four)
A Magnolia Pictures Release With Ziggy Marley, Cedella Marley and many more. Directed by Kevin Macdonald. Rated PG-13. 145 minutes. See movie trailer>

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