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Stir It Up

'Marley' remembers the reggae king

By Jay Trachtenberg, Fri., April 20, 2012

Stir It Up

At long last, a definitive documentary on the life of Jamaican reggae king Bob Marley has reached fruition. Martin Scorsese was initially slated for the project but didn't have time. Jonathan Demme started filming but never finished. UK filmmaker Kevin Macdonald wanted to do a project centered around Marley's 60th birthday but that didn't happen either. However, with the help of Chris Blackwell of Island Records, who lives in Jamaica and is well-connected with all things Marley, Macdonald was given a free hand by Executive Producer Steve Bing to make what has turned out to be the definitive portrait of this transcendent musician.

Austin Chronicle: Why has it been so difficult to make a film about Bob Marley?

Kevin Macdonald: There are all sorts of reasons but partly because the rights are so complicated. They're owned partly by the family, partly by Universal, partly by Chris Blackwell. It's a very complex situation. But I was lucky that I came along when everyone decided they wanted to make a film.

AC: The Marley family gave its blessing to this project.

KM: Yes. I met with Ziggy Marley. I talked to him about making a very intimate movie about the man, Bob Marley, the man behind the mythology, behind the legend. The family really took a great interest in the movie and were integral to it succeeding because they set the tone for how personal and intimate the film could be by giving extremely honest and personal interviews.  They're quite frank and not always positive about Bob. This isn't an airbrushed kind of celebrity portrait. This is the man, warts and all. That means at the end of the movie you know him as a person – he's not just the icon.

AC: You were just a school kid living in the UK in 1976 when Bob Marley left Jamaica to live in London. Was he even on your radar back then?

KM: I can't remember when I first became aware of him. I do know that one of the first three or four albums I ever bought was Uprising, which was released in 1980, and I remember when Bob died in 1981. I would have been 12 or 13 or 14 when he died. I remember the power of it. I grew up in the countryside in Scotland, a long way from Jamaica, and I remember the accessibility of the music melodically. 

And yet, also the rebelliousness and anti-establishment quality to the music, which was exciting and a little edgy. And layered into that was the mysticism of Rastafari and all these words about Haile Selassie and Jah and not really knowing as a teenager, what does this mean? It all seemed to be some sort of religious magic. That was the power of it for someone like me.

AC: You were in Uganda a few years back filming The Last King of Scotland. How did that experience tie into this Bob Marley project?

KM: I was there in 2005, 2006, and was amazed that when you go into the slums of Kampala, you find whole murals of Bob Marley's face; you find people listening to the music, people wearing T-shirts. That was pretty extraordinary to me. Why, if this man has been dead for 25 years, why is he so alive to these people halfway around the world? Then I realized, through research, that he's also alive to people elsewhere in the world, not just in America and Europe and with the college audience.

But also he was alive to people in the developing world in a way that probably makes him the best-known artist of all time. You can go to Delhi and people haven't heard of the Beatles. You can go to Tibet and people don't know who the Rolling Stones are. But they all know who Bob Marley is and they all know his songs. His face and image are everywhere. Even in the Arab Spring we found that people were singing "Get Up, Stand Up" in Tunisia and spray-painting the lyrics. That's an amazing potency to him still, so many years after his death.   

Marley opens in Austin this Friday. See Film Listings for showtimes and review.

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