In the years since Bob Marley’s death in 1981 his music has been shamelessly abused.
The man who toured the world as a militant opponent of racism, greed and poverty has been robbed of his revolutionary spirit.
The new documentary Marley is an attempt to put that right.
Through a mixture of archive footage and contemporary interviews the film charts Bob’s upbringing, first in dirt-poor rural Jamaica and then in the slums of Trenchtown on the outskirts of the capital Kingston.
Hardship and prejudice scarred young Marley’s life and music offered the chance of escape. Together with friends Bunny Wailer and Peter Tosh, Bob formed The Wailers in 1963.
They had limited success at first but then came Eric Clapton’s million-selling cover of Bob’s song I Shot The Sheriff, and two new Wailers albums—Catch A Fire and Burnin’. These put Marley on the road to stardom—and brought reggae to millions of black and white listeners.
Catch A Fire features tracks such as “Stir It Up” which express Bob’s tenderness—alongside the ghetto grit of “Concrete Jungle” and the simmering rage of “Slave Driver”.
This was bound together with a Rastafarianism that offered the future prospect of divine justice.
Bob was not the first to take the poverty of Jamaica into pop but his songs were different to most—they were not just a cry of pain, but an encouragement to resistance.
“If you are a big tree,” he sang, “We are a small axe, ready to cut you down.”
Such encouragement was to be sorely needed in mid-1970s Jamaica.
As recession gripped the Caribbean, Michael Manley’s left wing government attempted to shield Jamaica’s poor with reforms, while making alliances with Cuba and anti-colonial rebels fighting in Angola.
Meanwhile, the International Monetary Fund and the CIA encouraged Manley’s rivals to launch violent attacks on their opponents.
In the film interviewees discuss the way armed gangs attached themselves to political parties. In 1976 a gang linked to the right wing JLP party shot Bob and he was forced to flee to Britain.
Bob depicts the threat of civil war brilliantly in “Burnin’ and Lootin’.” Unfortunately in the film the crucial context of the West’s war on Jamaica is removed and we’re left to contemplate the irrationality of competing gangs.
It’s a serious weakness, but it doesn’t wreck the film.
Bob’s militant 1979 album Survival featured a celebration of the overthrow of Rhodesia’s white racist government by freedom fighters.
Even now his track “Zimbabwe” is regarded as the country’s unofficial national song. The film has great footage of the Wailers singing it in Harare as a new nation was born.
By 1980 Bob was sick with cancer. The film deals with his last year in exhaustive detail. Even as his body failed he was determined to carry on performing and recording.
Though the film adds a sugar-sweet ending that will doubtless be too much for many, there is a lot here that both the new and long-time fan will love.
Zimbabwe by Bob Marley
To divide and rule could only tear us apart
In everyman chest, there beats a heart
So soon we’ll find out who is the real revolutionaries
And I don’t want my people to be tricked by mercenaries
Marley, directed by Kevin MacDonald, is in cinemas now