Page Two: A Small Hurricane of Emotions
Jonathan Demme's 'Bob Marley Stay With the Rhythm' pushes beyond the boundaries of the screen
Sitting there at a screening, I am certain that these are moments when he is connecting the earth to the music, and the music to God. I don't think that this was what he believed was happening. It is what I know was happening.
That God is the deceased Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie makes no difference. The film is Bob Marley Stay With the Rhythm, a work in progress by filmmaker Jonathan Demme, who hosted the screening. The singer is Bob Marley. Much of the traditional history, musical evolution, and biographical information that are the meat and potatoes of many documentaries is here, but only to provide context for the film's higher vision. Marley as an entertainer, a musician, a singer, a star, a prophet, an indigenous political leader, and a member of so many families is the story – but the story is not the main point.
What drives the movie beyond the boundaries of the screen into something multidimensional is the same force that drove Marley his whole life: music. Reggae music is for dancing, listening, inspiring, bringing people together, and celebrating – but it also is a form of prayer and a way of talking to God. Reggae is religious, seeking the holy; it combines what comes up out of the Jamaican soil with the dreams, lives, and beliefs of the people.
This film is not a quick-cut, chop-shop bio, and it's not a well-made, smooth, narrative PBS music documentary with famous talking heads and snippets of hit songs.
Instead, shortly into this film it becomes overwhelmingly clear that Demme's eye is on a greater prize. Bob Marley Stay With the Rhythm is an evocation, a celebration, and a prayer. The film is not just about Bob Marley – though it tells of the man, his music, religion, country, family, history, and people – but it is out of him.
After the screening, Demme joked that they had seriously considered using "A Film by Bob Marley" as a credit but didn't. No problem, as Marley's authorship of the film is as obvious as Demme's.
Bob Marley does not just use bits and pieces of music to illustrate the story; it is as one with the music. There is more than an hour of live performance footage. The film's interviews, archival footage, and narrative notes are used to tell of reggae, Bob Marley, the Wailers, Rastafarians, Jamaica, the island's people and politics, but that is mostly as a means to an end. More than wanting you to receive information, Bob Marley wants you to be plunged into an emotional and spiritual world, that of Marley's music.
There are shots of where Marley grew up and played, interviews with friends and fellow musicians – the film is an organic celebration. Marley, his music, and the film all come out of the people, their history, island, religion, and music.
Music is an integral part of Demme's life. All his films have carefully considered soundtracks that are never gratuitous but always add another layer of meaning and emotion. He has long used breaks in his Hollywood schedule to make music films. Since his first effort in 1980, the Suburban Lawns doing "Gidget Goes to Hell," he's made any number of music videos and worked with such artists as Bruce Springsteen, Suzanne Vega, the Neville Brothers, New Order, and the Feelies. Along the way, Demme also made a number of longer-form music films, including a short film on Ginger Baker (one of his first directing efforts), Sin City: Artists United Against Apartheid, and Neil Young Trunk Show. Some audiences know him best for his performance films, perhaps, most notably the seminal Stop Making Sense and Neil Young: Heart of Gold. Each of Demme's music videos, performance films, and music-related documentaries stands alone, but when considered together, they are an extraordinary body of work, far more than the sum of their parts.
Demme doesn't overload his films with MTV flash or resonant narrative vignettes. Some filmmakers who shoot music seem almost embarrassed by it, misdirecting the audiences' attention to meaningless montages of bright and flashy things. Other filmmakers quickly slide into cliché. The worst are those who lacquer on layers of crap, which too often results in elaborate, fantastic extravaganzas that come across like Fellini outtakes, hallucinatory indulgences, or Gene Kelly dances so badly misremembered that they stagger instead of glide. Those films are no longer about music but instead about the filmmakers.
Demme trusts the music so completely that he focuses almost solely on it. As proud as he is of these films, he works to keep himself unobtrusive and invisible to viewers by resisting overly stylish turns, editing that is more about fancy cutting than music, superfluous decorations, and personal interpretations by the filmmaker. The films are not about him but about the music
But Demme knows that music is more than just artful sounds, that it is something deeper and more connected. The filmmaker bores down on the music being made and the musicians making it. Instead of applying layers of lacquer, he goes deeper and deeper into the music itself, knowing there is more there that can be conveyed by getting into it as intensely and with as few obstructions as possible.
As a lifelong music fan, Demme also knows that the experience of watching music really includes so very much more than sound; one can go on listing only the most obvious. There are the musicians and their instruments, playing, and performances. The song's sound, lyrics, chorus, structure, theme, music, and tempo. Live shows are impacted by sound, lights, other audience members, the room, and what you can see and hear. All of the above don't even begin to touch on the music's resonance, the emotions conveyed, the memories evoked, and the feelings inspired.
Demme and I have talked about the moments of transcendence that come when one listens to live music. Standing there – aware of the musicians, room, and audience – you suddenly find yourself listening to the music not just with your ears, but with your heart, mind, soul, personal history, and imagination: You find yourself in a rare and wonderful state.
When watching a movie, one can also become overwhelmed by a small hurricane of emotions – evoked not just by what is on the screen but by the very ideas, cinema, style, and language of the filmmaker.
In both those cases, the whole is much greater than the sum of its parts. It stops being just watching a movie or listening to music and becomes something nearly indescribable.
Demme's goal is to marry music and film, combining the unique experiences into something greater than the sum of the parts. His body of music works offers a library of approaches to filming music. Stop Making Sense relies on the Talking Heads' dynamic stage shows, but it is also about building momentum, the multilayered construction of a rock performance. Heart of Gold is elegiac, with few backgrounds and brilliant lighting, like a series of brightly hand-colored postcards someone is sending you from different places and past travels. It is also of the present; it is immediate and, when dealing with the past, very much looking back on it.
Bob Marley is designed to be experienced more than just watched. Unlike many concert films, it is not just an archival record of an event. Pushing beyond narrative, it aims for viewers to let go on a cognitive level, sensually barreling along through spiritual white-water rapids, normal distinctions fading away until everything melds together – until there is only the man, his music, and God.
Coda: I executive-produced one music documentary (Be Here to Love Me: A Film About Townes Van Zandt) and am a talking head in another (The Devil and Daniel Johnston). Both of those films received mostly very positive reviews (though, of course, there were some negative ones). Some of the reviewers acknowledged they'd never heard the artists' music before seeing the film. Almost all of those, whether or not they liked the films, weighed in with their opinions of the music. It seemed obvious that these films were portraits of artists, not sampler CDs. Still, most of these Polaroid judgments were offered with authority and without hesitation.
Even beginning to form a critical opinion on a musician's work from a film seems ridiculous. Rarely is a performance shown that is not truncated in some way. In too many concert films, the enormity of the show, the look of the audience, and the constant roaring overwhelm the music.
Bob Marley is different. If you don't know much about him or his music, you will by film's end. If you are a longtime listener, you will leave in bliss, probably to go right home to put some Marley music on and turn it up loud!