Blame it on Jamaica's tourism department or the “trustafarian” in every college dorm who plays the “Legend” album on a constant loop, but the life and work of reggae superstar Bob Marley got oversimplified and commodified in the years after his death. Director Kevin Macdonald's “Marley,” which kicks off the deadCenter Film Festival at 8:30 Wednesday with a free outdoor screening on the Oklahoma River and opens wide on June 14, takes a deep look at a musician who, on a global level, is as iconic as John Lennon or Elvis Presley. And like those other great men of rock, there is far more to Marley than his afterlife as a brand.
“Marley” was made with the full cooperation of the Marley family: son Ziggy Marley is an executive producer on the film, and Marley's widow, Rita, and daughter, Cedella, are both extensively interviewed. Given that Cedella Marley is now the chief executive officer of her father's record label, Tuff Gong, it's easy to assume beforehand that “Marley” will be pure hagiography and devoted to the myth-building tradition surrounding him. But the family always has been honest about Bob Marley, and Macdonald gives this life a full airing, diving into the family history that would shape his work.
Macdonald goes all the way back to Norval Marley, the British colonial supervisor who, at age 60, impregnated 17-year-old Cedella Booker. She gave birth to Robert Nesta Marley in 1945, and throughout his early years, Bob Marley contended with the Trenchtown attitudes toward mixed-race residents and the outright rejection he suffered from the white Marleys. Macdonald documents how a confrontation between Bob and Norval's other descendants informed the lyrics to 1970's “Corner Stone”: “The stone that the builder refused/ will always be the head corner stone.” Those words ultimately predicted Bob Marley's rise as the head of the family and the reduction of the Norval Marley clan to footnotes in the singer-songwriter's history.
The documentary covers Marley's early days of recording ska versions of pop hits such as Dion and the Belmonts' “Teenager in Love,” and how his embrace of Rastafarianism informed his adoption of the slower reggae rhythms that powered 1970's “Soul Rebels” and the two 1973 albums that cemented his worldwide stardom, “Catch a Fire” and “Burnin'.” Songs such as “Stir It Up,” “I Shot the Sheriff” and “Get Up, Stand Up” became crossover hits on rock radio, and Marley achieved unusual political power for a musician, single-handedly forging a truce during a concert between warring parties in Jamaica.
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Starring: Bob Marley, Rita Marley, Cedella Marley, Cindy Breakspeare. (For drug content, thematic elements and some violent images)