Scottish director Kevin MacDonald returns to the world of documentary with his new film Marley, a personal and touching exploration of the life and character of the Jamaican musical icon, who died from cancer at the height of his fame aged just 36. A director whose background is rooted in factual filmmaking – having made his name with the Oscar-winning One Day In September and the phenomenally successful Touching the Void – MacDonald has more recently been associated with punchy, performance led dramas such as The Last King of Scotland, State of Play and The Eagle. Whilst successful, those films lacked to compelling edge that had marked his previous work, and the return to his roots is welcome, especially given the manner in which he commits himself to peeling away the levels of mystique surrounding Marley’s image.
The most insightful portrait of Marley yet committed to film, MacDonald gained unprecedented access to the Marley estate, and the result is (aside from appealing to fans of Bob Marley’s work) one of the most compelling music documentaries of the past few years. Speaking about the film shortly before its UK release, an articulate and animated MacDonald sat down to discuss the perils of making a film about a cultural icon; the pitfalls of dealing with an artist’s estate; and the need to stay true to the most fascinating of subjects.
How did you come to make a film about Bob Marley? It doesn’t seem o be a natural topic for a Scottish filmmaker.
Kevin MacDonald: It was a lucky opportunity. I had wanted to make a film that was tangentially to do with Marley about eight years ago, when it would have been his sixtieth birthday. I was going to do an observational documentary following some Jamaican Rasta’s, going from Jamaica to Ethiopia, where they were holding a big concert in celebration of Bob’s birthday, and I thought that would be an interesting way to talk about Rasta and about Bob, and even more how to see how these Jamaicans who had yearned for Africa from afar, what they made of the reality of it. For one reason or another the film didn’t happen, but I got to know them [people associated with the Marley estate] and two years ago I got a call from this producer in LA…saying “I’ve got the rights to make a documentary and Chris Blackwell told me you were interested in Marley, Would you like to talk about it? And I said “I would love to talk about it.” So it’s something that came back to me, in a way, many years later.
The film is structured in a very interesting way, in that avoids the usual testimonies of its subject’s cultural importance in favour of a more personal exploration of their character.
KM: I’m more fascinated in a way by Marley’s impact, and the legacy of Marley, who he is, who he was, rather than just making a music film. What I felt was that there had been quite a lot of books about Bob…and some documentaries. And I just felt none of them quite added up; I don’t really know who this person is from reading this, on an empathetic human level. So that’s what I became intrigued by: the person, the man behind the icon. I didn’t really know what I was going to do, I just knew that I wanted to go down that more intimate path, that more human path. I think it’s fairly obvious what Bob’s standing is, he doesn’t need to be bolstered by an interview with Bono. Therefore it has to be people who knew him, who knew him well and can tell his story for him because he’s not around to tell it. You look for other people to provide you with little insights and build up a sort of tapestry or mosaic of who he was. It’s a biography, a biopic, an oral history of Bob Marley.
So you always knew the film that you were setting out to make. Were there no surprises?
KM: I didn’t know how and what I was going to find. I didn’t know if there was anything to find. But like a lot of documentaries I had to start, and if it ends not being anything much then the film isn’t going to be that interesting. What I was surprised to find was that there was still a lot more to be said, a lot more to be found out. I think that rock journalism over the years has been quite lazy…I think about a third of the people in the film had never been talked to before, even though there’s been all these books written. Which doesn’t reflect too well on the books!
Marley didn’t give many interviews either…
KM: Well that was one of the challenges. There’s no film of him, performing or otherwise, up until about 1972. So for ten years of his career there’s nothing, which is tricky when you’re making a film! But that’s a reflection of the fact that he comes from this desperately poor country in which nobody had cameras… and even if they did they weren’t film Rasta bands, who were considered kind of scum, I don’t think he liked journalists; he would be really disruptive in interviews, or uncommunicative, maybe because he felt like slightly like “I shouldn’t have to explain myself…” and because he felt a little insecure when faced with these intellectuals or these very well educated people , because he was not well educated. But also people weren’t that interested. It grew, but it was really a cult thing until the last couple of years of his career. That was a big challenge, but in a way that becomes a part of the structure of the film itself.
You must have encountered some obstacles getting people to talk, and getting hold of material for film in that case.
KM: There were a couple of people that we wanted to get who we didn’t get but mostly, because we were pretty determined, we got everyone to talk. There was a lot of time spent on that and spent getting people to appear, and with getting photographs and archive getting people to agree to give us their precious photographs, and people wanting a lot of money for images. That kind of thing was time consuming and frustrating at times. There were a couple of that got away; I had wanted to interview Stevie Wonder actually, because Stevie played a couple of key gigs with Bob, and they were quite close towards the end of bob’s career, but he’s notoriously hard to on down so I could never pin him down.
Did you feel a certain amount of pressure relating to the access that you were being given by the Marley estate?
KM: You can’t make any film about any artist, whether they be a visual artist or a writer who’s still in copyright, without having permission from the estate. It’s as simple as that, and obviously there are always going to be strings attached. But I’ve had experience of making music films before where I have lost control and I haven’t been able to do what I wanted to do, and I was very straightforward when I came o be involved in this. I said if I’m going to do this you need to leave me in peace. I love Bob and respect him, and I want to make a film that’s positive, but I want to be truthful. And actually the Marley family and Universal Music, who all own the rights, were incredibly hands-off. They didn’t interfere and actually the children who control the estate, Bob’s kids, wanted to make a film like this. They wanted to make a film about the man, because they didn’t know the man particularly because they were so young when he died. And they’re the first ones to talk about Bob’s faults, the ganja smoking, the womanising, whatever. I think by having those things in the film you give the man shape because there’s light and shade to him. They had a very open attitude.
Even though the film doesn’t when it comes to exploring Marley’s character, the tone of most of the interview is still very loving isn’t it?
KM: That generation of people are probably more articulate, and have had the time to think about it very deeply, and [to contemplate] their experience. It’s amazing how many of the people who knew Bob are still somehow under his shadow: even with people who had met him briefly he’d made a huge impact. There was a very moving interview, which I had to remove as it was too long, with the doctor in Germany who had been hired just to fly out with Bob in the airplane back to Miami when he died. This doctor was with him for twelve or fourteen hours or something like that, and he started crying remembering the incident. He said “I’ve never seen anyone face up to their death as bravely as Bob Marley.” He was just incredibly moved by him and his brief encounter with him. He definitely had something.
Marley is out now on DVD and Blu-ray