Redemption Song

The first time I heard reggae was in junior high. The tune was “I Shot the Sherriff,” the Eric Clapton cover. I thought it was a stupid song, but I also couldn’t get it out of my head. The deejay, from either KLIV or KFRC, the two San Jose AM stations I listened to, explained, “This is called reggae. It’s a new thing from Jamaica.”

Later, I’d realize that I’d already heard this New Thing from Jamaica in Johnny Nash’s cover of “Stir It Up,” which I also thought was dumb because why was he saying “steer”? A bit of a reactionary twit, I admit. (I did eventually see the light, by the way. My late first husband had spent a fair amount of time in Jamaica and played Marley, Jimmy Cliff, and Yellowman, whose cover of “I’m getting married in the morning” included a verse, “I’m getting dee-vorced in the evening.”)

If I’d seen reggae and not just heard it back in my teenybopper years, and particularly seen and heard Bob Marley performing his own songs, I think I would have not just gotten it, I would have embraced it. But of course Marley, Kevin MacDonald’s great, encyclopedic documentary, wasn’t around. If you have reactionary twits in your house or just want to experience incredible music and the story that goes with it, rubadub your way into the nearest theater where it’s playing. (In Ann Arbor, that’s the State through, as of this writing, June 14th; you can see the trailer by clicking the link.)

Years in the making, the list of participants, locations, and footage is extraordinary; MacDonald and his editor, Dan Glendenning, must have sifted through hundreds of hours to create the 144-minute movie, which never feels long. Marley’s life has a natural narrative arc: a childhood in poverty, a scrappy band forming in the Kingston ghetto of Trench Town, the quest for recognition, the impact of political unrest not just in Jamaica but in emerging countries in Africa, and death from fast-moving cancer. That arc helps the movie stay out of the deadly “and then he did this” structure that plagues so many biographies, both written and filmed, documentary and feature. 

But what is most remarkable is MacDonald’s sense of juxtaposition. He’s clearly an outstanding interviewer. People don’t flinch at some of the tougher questions, which tells you that they trust him, and they seem to answer honestly. Record company executives are frank about the deals they made with Marley – “That’s the way it worked at the time” – and we then cut to members of the Wailers talking about the poverty they endured in the early days. Family photos featuring the man and his two oldest children quickly cut to interviews with Ziggy and Cedella, whose recollections and feelings are as different their respective accents; he looks and sounds strikingly like his father, she sounds like a kid raised in an American suburb.

MacDonald is meticulous, even altering credits as people’s roles change and, at one point, not revealing who is speaking until exactly the right moment. It’s odd to fear spoiling a documentary, but a large part of the pleasure of watching the movie is its many small revelations.  And it wasn’t just the fact that I know little about the subject matter. My beau, a deep-dyed reggae and Marley fan who lived in Jamaica for two years – I seem to have some sort of Jamaica boyfriend karma – naturally knew a ton of stuff that I didn’t, but was still amazed at how much he learned.

Mostly, there is footage. Halie Selassie visiting Jamaica, brutal sniping between the warring arch-conservative Jamaica Labour Party and more liberal People’s National Party, the tiny hilltop town of St. Ann’s where Marley grew up. And of course, the concerts. To see Marley dancing, waving his mighty dreads like a lion, utterly consumed by the music that seems to pour forth from his every cell is to witness true ecstasy – the religious kind, as he consistently emphasized his devotion to Ja, or, in the lovely Rastafarian phrase, I and I, meaning God inseparable from oneself.

At one point, an interviewer asks Marley point blank, “Are you rich?” With complete calm, he fires back, “What do you mean by richness?”, then briefly talks about his definition of the word. The tragedy of his rich life and artistry being cut short is more bearable with this careful, sweeping document of his gentle and powerful legacy. 

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