[Image via Awards Daily]
We hear it all the time:
“The book was so much better than the movie.”
It’s usually true. Filmmakers have so many storytelling devices at their disposal: beautifully composed moving images, the gift of sound, dynamic actors and clever editing, to name a few. Yet, the sum of those parts struggles to compete with the one great tool the author has: the reader’s imagination.
Documentaries don’t traditionally suffer from the book versus movie affliction. Docs are frequently used as addenda to texts. What educator doesn’t welcome an hour when classroom management is made easy by virtue of dimmed lights and a flickering video lesson? And what student doesn’t appreciate a movie day? In that sense, a doc is like a teacher’s best friend.
Outside the classroom, a doc is a convenient stand-in for a book. Busy viewers can acquire knowledge in 60 minutes (or even 30) that may otherwise require several morning commutes or a few bedtime readings to learn. There’s not much antagonism with documentaries. We have no real need to compare the book about subject X to the movie about subject X. Imagination doesn’t loom so large.
There are, however, certain subjects that don’t come alive via the page as vibrantly as they do on the screen. For example: Bob Marley.
[Image via The Selvedge Yard]
Marley, a new doc from Kevin MacDonald, is currently making the rounds. I saw it recently at the E Street Cinema in Washington, DC. If the bootleg dude on your corner doesn’t have it, you can probably find it somewhere online. Although you should buy it legally via iTunes or Amazon or something. A loving Jah would like that. (And so would Bob Marley’s estate.)
I don’t need to tell you what the film is about, do I? Bob Marley is an icon we can all take for granted because we all know everything there is to know about him already. Right? Who can’t mouth the words to at least one Bob Marley song? Who hasn’t enjoyed even the briefest reggae phase at some point in their life? And who hasn’t owned a poster or t-shirt or other tchotchke with Marley’s likeness staring out from it?
But that’s the thing. Becoming an icon is actually a reduction, not an elevation. While the icon stands for something greater than the person, the amplified bits of that life drown out its richness. The icon is much closer to a caricature than a fully realized character. The Bob Marley we think we know is not necessarily the Robert Nesta Marley who actually existed.
[Image via Listen Recovery]
The life of Marley consisted of these facts (among others):
- He had no relationship with the man who fathered him, a Syrian Jew who migrated to England and then to Jamaica where the elder Marley served as a captain with the Royal Marines.
- He did have a relationship with Miss World 1976. It was a long-running affair.
- When a civil war raged in Jamaica, an assassin tried and failed to kill him. Eventually, he would deliver a performance that kinda sorta initiated the peace process. He may not have ended the war, but it would not have ended without his participation.
- He loved playing soccer, and he refused to seek conventional treatment for an injury he was told would end his recreational career.
- During his performance celebrating Zimbabwe’s independence, tear gas scattered the crowd near–and on–the stage. He kept performing as if in an ecstatic state.
- He lived his final days in Germany during winter where he received world-class, unconventional cancer treatment.
If you’re a serious Marley-phile, you already knew those things. If you’re not–and most of us really aren’t–maybe those facts are news to you. And maybe other anecdotes featured in the MacDonald film would be, too.
I lived in Pittsburgh for a number of years. The people of that place share an uncanny memory for every noteworthy person or event that is connected to Pittsburgh. In all my years living there and interacting with people from there, I’ve never once heard anyone mention that Bob Marley performed his very last concert in the Steel City. But that is a fact. One of many, perhaps, that Marley’s legend obscures.
[Image via BobMarley.com]
MacDonald’s film is a good contribution to the Bob Marley canon. It includes books from his wife and one of his daughters as well as an American Masters film from Jeremy Marre. I can’t tell you what distinguishes the latest telling of the Marley story from any of the others. Except to say the MacDonald piece revealed one particular truth to me: no great Marley book could possibly match a good Marley movie.
MacDonald and his film crew fly over the Jamaican countryside and track through the stacks of shacks in Trenchtown to show us what it looks like where the man existed in anticipation of the icon. There’s something intentional about both places. The hills of Jamaica don’t look like any glacier carved them out. They look more like grass-covered bunkers, and they form a treacherous terrain. Trenchtown, in its close-up, emits a desperate, hopeless vibration. The dirt roads that cut between the ramshackle homes make for a primitive cliche. These were the places where the people who were brought to that plot of land were deposited. And these were the circumstances that molded the man.
While we see what Bob Marley’s home country looked and sounded like, we also get testimony from the man himself. MacDonald features interview footage from a few different points in Marley’s life. We know this because his ageless face is betrayed by the different lengths of his hair. And when we see photos of him taken while he was battling cancer, his hair is gone revealing a face–and a man–who was much smaller than the icon his hair helped make of him.
But the hair is not the only thing that swelled his stature. Nor is his famed propensity for smoking ganja/weed/herb/etc. It’s not even as simple as blaming (crediting) the music. If it was one thing, it was his energy. You can see it oozing out of him in the interview footage. And you can feel it pulsing through the screen during the performance footage MacDonald has chosen to excerpt. It was hopeful, naive, cunning, powerful, modest and magnetic. It was everything a person would need to be in order to transcend the confines of a single life.
It’d be silly of me to try and describe any more of MacDonald’s film to you. The only thing I can do here is to tell you to watch it. There was a man beneath that icon. And no writer could tell his story as movingly as a movie featuring the man’s own testimony. The book couldn’t possibly be better.