Around the World with Bob Marley

The past two days I had the pleasure of watching Marley, a 2 ½ hour documentary about Bob Marley. I was familiar with his music and influence, and his lamentable death at the age of 36 from melanoma. But I didn’t know the total history and this documentary covers everything so well and so thoroughly that I will listen to Marley’s music and look for his worldwide influence afresh now.

Marley brims with concert and interview footage of the man, interviews with his children, wives/lovers and band members, and even Jamaican political leader Edward Seaga. This article is an exhaustive look at the movie’s content. What did I learn? Well, everything:

  • His father, Norval Sinclair Marley, was white and born in Jamaica in 1885. Norval’s mother, Ellen Broomfield, was Syrian Jewish. Norval served in World War I and was not a factor in Marley’s life, although the Marley’s family businesses appear in a key scene in the documentary.
  • Marley lived in Wilmington, Delaware, where his mother had immigrated, and he worked on a Chrysler assembly line.
  • Marley’s shows primarily attracted white audiences in the U.S. One music promoter wanted him to be the opening act for the Commodores as the only way to draw a crowd.
  • Marley was an intense performer and never phoned in a gig, based on the footage. He was always on, always giving it his all.
  • Despite an estate valued at $30 million, Marley refused to write a will, owing to his Rastafarian beliefs. The movie lightly touches, in a humorous way, on Marley’s lack of estate planning. In reality, families members have been waging bitter court fights over trademarks and business rights for the past 30 years, a tragic aftermath that would make a fascinating documentary on its own, the temporal flip side of love and peace.

Marley came close to being assassinated in 1976 during political turmoil in Jamaica. He was scheduled to play at the Smile Jamaica concert, and, despite some wounds, he did indeed play. The film captures all the electricity and emotion of the concert. I was particularly struck by Marley bringing on stage the two main political rivals in the country, Michael Manley and Edward Seaga, and he embraced both of them in a plea for unity and reconciliation. The moment showed Marley as a man who truly put his philosophy ahead of politics.

The scene made me think – could there be a U.S. performer or personality with the vision, message and respect who could make that kind of gesture? Who could bring political rivals together for a heart-felt moment? Bruce Springsteen comes to mind as a possibility. Oprah Winfrey? Both seem too politically obvious and not likely to embrace somebody they see as afflicted with GOP cooties. After much thinking, the one performer I can see uniting different schools of thought would be the Man in Black, Johnny Cash. His was a hard-bitten, compassionate message from a man who had seen the dark sides of life. He could appeal to anybody. But, unfortunately, he’s dead. Merle Haggard’s got the world view and he’s still alive, but I can’t see him with national appeal. B.B. King? An icon of the blues, world respected, but not exactly a philosopher king.

The film included a striking bonus feature about the impact of Marley’s music worldwide. It’s one thing to say the music still lives, but it’s quite another to concretely show people using the music as the basis of social and political action. That’s what Marley does, brilliantly. Segments from Jamaica, Brazil, Japan, Tibet, India, Kenya and, most tellingly, Tunisia at the start of the Arab Spring, show the power of Marley to get people moving. The range of social situations is amazing, from the violence and poverty of Brazil to the sterile, uneasy prosperity of Japan. In the Tunisia segment, protesters daub song titles on walls and demand their civil rights and free speech with the colors of Jamaica prominent in demonstrations.

What prophet could ask for more?

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