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Berlin Film Festival: Bob Marley documentary unveiled

February 13, 2012 |  7:16 am

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A long-awaited Bob Marley documentary premiered Sunday at Berlin’s International Film Festival, and -- people get ready -- will open in U.S. theaters April 20 after playing the South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas, in March.

Though Martin Scorsese and Jonathan Demme were previously attached to the portrait of the reggae legend, “Last King of Scotland” director Kevin Macdonald was brought in by producer Steve Bing, who had procured the music rights, film rights and the support of the Marley family

Macdonald told journalists at the Berlinale he had just 13 months to work on the bio-doc, which spans 2½ hours, packing in numerous interviews with mostly admiring family members, friends, lovers and musicians, historical concert footage, rare recordings, and 50 of Bob Marley’s songs, and 10 from other artists).

Macdonald’s touch for innovation within the documentary style, seen in 1999’s Oscar-winning “One Day in September” and 2003's “Touching the Void”) feels lacking in “Marley,” a lengthy portrayal of the man who rose from poverty in rural Jamaica to become a musical visionary and globally beloved figure, dying from cancer in 1981 at age 36.

Stopping short of hagiography, “Marley”  does reveal a few surprising facts about the man (he worked in a hotel and a factory in Wilmington, Del.!) and touches on the pain and alienation he felt growing up as a mixed-race child, shunned by his white father’s family.

His family ties stretched to the breaking point as he blurred the lines around his marriage, eventually fathering 11 children with seven women. “I was beyond wife,” says Rita Marley, who in the film recalls rescuing her husband from fans post-tryst, transforming from spouse “into guardian angel.” Most of the women from his life seem circumspect and understanding, but daughter Cedella’s remembrances in the film are tinged with bitterness.

And when asked at the Berlinale press conference to relate a fond memory, son Rohan Marley told the story of one Sunday when he and his brother Stephen were playing inside the closed gates of their comfortable home at 56 Hope Road, a hot-spot that drew both the creative elite and local people in need. Two poor boys came by, and the Marley brothers told them to leave, that today they had their dad all to themselves.

Their famous father caught the conversation from an upstairs window, and angrily called them upstairs. “I’m here for the ones outside the gates,” he told them gave them some money, and told Rohan to buy ice cream for the poor boys -- and none for themselves -- and sit and watch them eat it. They learned, said Rohan Marley, “we may call him Daddy, but we’re just one of the many.”

Marley saw his music and public self as an extension of his Rastafarian beliefs and rarely shunned a chance to perform, sometimes for free, and even spending $90,000 to fly his band to Zimbabwe for a concert to mark the country’s independence. He was claimed by both sides of the warring political gangs in Jamaica, though he professed no allegiance, and played a birthday show for Gabon’s dictator president. He was competitive in all parts of his life, driving his children and his band to achieve his level of perfection.

Throughout “Marley,” we see impressive hordes of concert crowds from Tokyo to Toronto transfixed by his talent and charisma. But the true universality comes to light in the credits, which roll over shots of people all over the world singing and dancing to a series of Marley classics -- a segment that surely has its roots in Kevin Macdonald’s 2011 “Life in a Day,” derived from of hours of YouTube footage from a single day. This final sequence personifies the global reach of the man and his music -- and the joy many derive from it -- better than much of the eloquent interview footage that came before it.

U.S. distribution rights for “Marley” were bought ahead of the festival by Magnolia Pictures; VH1 has secured first dibs for television.

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-- Susan Stone in Berlin

Photo: A scene from "Marley." Credit: Berlin International Film Festival


 
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