It’s a strange fit. On one side of the camera are the surviving relatives and associates of Bob Marley, the musician born in poverty in Jamaica who became one of the world’s leading reggae stars and Rastafarian voices until his death in 1981 at the age of 36. On the other is Kevin Macdonald, the softly-spoken 44-year-old Scottish director. When we meet one morning in a cramped production office in a block of flats, Macdonald, whose career continues to switch between documentaries such as 2003’s Touching the Void and dramas like 2006’s The Last King of Scotland, is sitting in a big swivel chair and telling me why he finds Jamaica so exciting.
‘It’s so close to America, but it hasn’t been co-opted by the tourism industry,’ he argues. ‘It’s so much its own thing. Partly, that’s because it’s still violent. There’s an amazing cultural confidence too, it feels very alive and creative. A big part of what the Rastas were doing was educating people about their African heritage. It’s the Jamaican equivalent of Black Power.’
For Macdonald, this was key to understanding Marley. In the film he explains how the musician was rejected by both his mother’s black family and his father’s white family. ‘Bob was always an outsider because he was mixed race and poor,’ adds Macdonald. ‘He never belonged until he found music.’
Marley is a straightforward film: it’s a chronological tale defined by talking heads and location photography and peppered with music. Stylistically it hovers somewhere between Scorsese’s epic docs on Bob Dylan and George Harrison and the more pedestrian sort of music films you find on TV.
Macdonald was the third director to have a crack at the film, which was bankrolled by American tycoon Steve Bing. ‘Originally, Scorsese was going to do it, and Steve Bing, who is a very rich, obsessive music fan, bought the music rights from the family and Universal. But Scorsese was too busy and Jonathan Demme joined the project instead.’ That didn’t work out either: Macdonald says Demme and Bing parted ways after disagreeing over the direction of the film. Bing knew that in 2005 Macdonald had planned and aborted a film about Jamaican reggae fans travelling to Ethiopia to celebrate Marley’s 60th birthday. So he offered him the gig. ‘Then I also had to meet with [Marley’s son] Ziggy and persuade him.’
There will be those who wonder whether Marley is a bit of an insider-job or puff piece – though to be fair Macdonald does touch on his subject’s unpalatable attitudes to family and women. Macdonald confesses he felt admiration for Marley. ‘I started off sceptical,’ he says. ‘You hear from reggae snobs that he’s a sell-out, that his music is not real reggae. But that’s rubbish. It’s because he’s ubiquitous. I came away feeling like Bob Marley had integrity. He did give away most of his money. He did live in a single bed in a commune.’
Macdonald had his fingers burnt before while filming in the world of celebrity, so he was doubly determined to keep control of this film. ‘I’d made a documentary about Mick Jagger, which was a bit of a nightmare in the end, although I had a great time making it,’ he recalls. The film, Being Mick, was screened in late 2001. ‘The original cut was interesting. It was a character study, and Mick was totally free with me filming. He took me everywhere. I even watched 9/11 with him – I watched the Twin Towers come down with Mick in his chateau in France. But then the classic Stones thing happened. Control crept in. He didn’t like this or that. He didn’t want to look miserable. The film was cut to shreds. So I had experience of what happens when you get tangled up in the world of rock ’n’ roll. I didn’t want that again.’
So how did he avoid the pitfalls? ‘I went to Ziggy and said, “Look, this has happened before. I love your father’s music, but I need assurance that you’re going to leave me alone and not threaten to hold back the music unless we take something out.” He gave me assurance, and I also had contractual assurance. There were a couple of times when he said things like: “Oh, my mum was upset at the bit when Bob denied he was married.” But I said it was important to keep them in. And we did.’
Marley is now showing at Vox Cinemas, Mall of the Emirates, and is also available on Du Movies on Demand.