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On Movies: 'Marley' documentary celebrates a 'natural mystic'

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 19, 2012 - Bob Marley died in 1981, but he remains the biggest star in reggae music. A Marley compilation album, “Legend,” released three years after his death, has sold more than 25 million copies worldwide, His iconic songs -– such as “I Shot the Sheriff," "No Woman, No Cry," "Stir It Up,"  "Jammin’"  and "Redemption Song" – helped create reggae, which was born in the slums of Kingston, Jamaica, and married traditional lilting Caribbean rhythms with the power and passion of rhythm & blues.

“Marley,” a fine new film by Oscar-winning documentarian Kevin MacDonald (“One Day in September”), finally comes to grips with Marley’s extraordinary music and equally extraordinary life. Marley became a star all over the world in the 1970s, but in Jamaica he was more than that -- at one point he was able to stop a civil war. At least for a time.

The centerpiece of MacDonald’s fascinating movie is a concert held at the National Stadium in Kingston in 1978. The country was torn by street warfare between armed gangs supported by Socialist Prime Minister Michael Manley and by opposition politician Edward Seaga. Finally, members of both gangs got together and decided to make peace with music. Marley, who knew the gangsters from his days in the Trench Town slum, was convinced to come home to Jamaica and headline the One Love One Peace concert. Both Manley and Seaga were invited, and, because of Marley’s popularity, the bitter enemies were under so much pressure that they both showed up.

In a climactic moment, after hours of music, as Marley and his band the Wailers were performing “Jammin’,” Marley took the hands of the two men and held them high as he improvised lyrics that stressed peace and that included the refrain, “We’re going to make it right, we’re going to unite.” At Marley’s insistence, the two men shook hands. For the moment, at least, there was peace.

Marley, the son of a black Jamaican woman and a white man he never knew, moved from a rural village to Trench Town as a young man, and he maintained a house on the edge of Trench Town until his death of cancer in a European hospice at 36. MacDonald interviewed dozens of people who had known Marley, including his singer wife, Rita, who somehow accommodated herself to the fact that her husband was openly involved with other women. MacDonald also interviews the other women.

There also are interviews with other musicians, including Marley’s son, Ziggy, and his band mate, Bunny Livingston, as well as numerous friends, perhaps most valuably the janitor at a Kingston recording studio who lived with the singer when he was a young man.

What emerges is a fascinating portrait of a complicated, passionate, sometimes contrary man, a great musician whose songs embodied his life and emotions. “Marley” is full of music, and full of life.

“Marley” opens Fri., April 20, both theatrically and through video on demand services, such as NetFlix and Charter cable. It is well worth seeing on the big screen.


The fifth annual QFEST St. Louis, featuring contemporary gay cinema, will be held Sun., April 22, through Thurs., April 26, at the Tivoli in the Delmar Loop. The full schedule and ticket information can be found on the website of Cinema St. Louis, a sponsoring organization.