Thursday, May 3, 2012
Roger Ebert's review
Marley (directed by Kevin Macdonald) is an excellent documentary on the life behind the music of famed Jamaican reggae musician Bob Marley (6 February 1945 – 11 May 1981).
I admit that while I never was a fanatic about reggae music, I always did find it sympathetic and as a young adult in the 1980s, Bob Marley. already deceased by then, was something of a "cultural icon." No I didn't necessarily want to emulate him and the reggae scene's perceived drug use. On the other hand, how could one NOT like / admire songs like Bob Marley and the Wailers' "One Love" [YouTube].
Reggae entered into my life again (if only briefly) as a curiosity when I was serving as Associate Pastor at St. Catherine of Siena parish a heavily Caribbean and mostly Caribbean Hispanic parish in Kissimmee, FL in central Florida. There I had been called one time to talk to a teenager who no longer wanted to go to Mass. Her parents, immigrants from one of the Andean countries of South America were still struggling terribly with English but their 15 year old daughter, of course, already spoke fluently and with only a slight accent. Anyway, she was the one who no longer wanted to come to Mass. And when I asked her why, she responded: "Because they don't play my kind of music." We had actually awesome ensembles for our Spanish and even Haitian Masses. So surprised, I asked, "What kind of music do you like?" She responded, "Christian reggae," to which I had to laugh, thinking immediately of some of the older retirees going to our English Masses. Still, our music director there was excellent and we did have a substantial number of teens like this 15 year old who may have come from Spanish speaking immigrant households but already preferred English and yes had different tastes, needs and yes worldviews than their parents. So for a couple of years afterwards "One day we'll have Christian reggae" became something of a "Next Year in Jerusalem" challenge between me and the music director, and yes, over time we did find some lighter, more Caribbean sounding liturgical music (that wouldn't scare away the older folk) to play at the English Masses there as well.
Then much more recently, this spring, I happened to come across and then see another excellent documentary called The First Rasta  about Leonard Howell, the founder of the Rastafarian movement, that was playing at the Facets' Multimedia Theater here in Chicago. That proved to be a very interesting/enlightening experience as previously, while I did find Rastafaris often rather sympathetic, really I knew next to nothing next to nothing about them except for their (to my _white_ eyes) rather strange if characteristic dress and again their reputation for marijuana use. Learning that the Rastafaris came to worship the King of Ethiopia as their (black) messiah immediately explained a number of things to me including the characteristic colors of Rastafarian dress (they are the traditional colors of the Ethiopian flag), as well as both the Biblical allusions and generally _happy_ sound of Rastafarian inspired reggae both movements coming from Jamaica. (For those who would not immediately make the connection, the Ethiopian monarchy had traditionally linked itself to the Davidic line through King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. So it would not be impossible to imagine a Messiah who was a "son of David" to be born into the Ethiopian royal family...).
All this is to say that upon learning that this documentary, now about Bob Marley, was going play, this time at the Music Box Theater in Chicago, I certainly was immediately interested in going to see it.
What then to say about the film and its portrayal of Bob Marley? First, I would say that Kevin Macdonald's portrayal of Bob Marley was far more interesting to me than say Oliver Stone's portrayal of famed-rocker from the 1960s (who also died at an early age) Jim Morrison in The Doors . The two films were obviously different in style, Stone's being a "historical drama" while Macdonald's being a true documentary. Still one would say that Stone's Jim Morrison came across as basically a white "navy brat" who from the time he entered into (and flunked out of) UCLA's film school to his death was essentially in a drug induced free-fall during which he occasionally wrote lyrics and played concerts. Yes, Morrison was the "bungie jumper" (without a chord?) of his generation trying to "Break On Through (to the Other Side)" and all that, but fundamentally Morrison was a slob. In contrast IMHO, Macdonald told a far more compelling story about Marley, no doubt in good part because Marley's was a compelling story.
For instance, Rastafarian, with dreadlocks and all, Bob Marley was actually half-white and half-black. His father was white from a British colonial family that had settled in Jamaica. Marley's mother came from a poor black family living in the Jamaican hinterlands where Bob's father had found her and, yes, got her pregnant. Most of those interviewed in the documentary who knew Bob Marley from his childhood noted how hard it was for him to grow-up a "half caste" in a largely black community in the countryside. At twelve, he and his mother's family moved to the notorious Trenchtown section of Kingston, Jamaica. His life there was not easy. One of his fellow band members noted that there were times growing-up that Bob knew hunger ("You filled your stomach with water before you went to sleep..."). Trenchtown eventually became the birthplace of various Jamaican music sounds including rocksteady and reggae.
Among other things that I learned about Marley and the Wailers was that when they first toured in the United States, since most of the members (including Marley) were Rastafarians, they had a real problems playing State-side "raggae clubs" which they found immoral. Yes, Rastafarians have a reputation (by outsiders) of smoking (huge amounts of) marijuana. But apparently that reputation is not fair and if Rastafarians do smoke marijuana (or even a lot of it), they do so with a religious view and DON'T see their smoking marijuana as justification for going on to use/abuse other drugs. The band members' perceptions of the immorality going on in the clubs that they were playing the United States were enough of a problem for them that a number of the band members actually left the band rather than continue to participate in their tour. I found that fascinating!
I also found fascinating that Bob Marley along with most of his band were life-long avid soccer players, indeed soccer fanatics. Once again, this does not necessarily square with the "heavy on the pot" image that Marley was often associated with. Indeed, it was as a result of a soccer injury (a stubbed toe that refused to heal) that Marley discovered that he had cancer -- melanoma -- which eventually resulted in his early death.
All in all, I found the documentary to be fascinating and Marley to be a true artist and cultural force in his time. When he had made it, his house was "two blocks from the President's and three blocks from the Prime Minister's in Jamaica" according to one of the people interviewed in the documentary and "his house was certainly the cultural center of Jamaica at the time. Everybody who was anybody was going there to talk about music, history, politics, and yes, play soccer ..." ;-). What a guy! ;-)
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