Bob Marley remains, as his Rock and Roll Hall of Fame biography attests, "reggae's foremost practitioner and emissary." More than 30 years after his death at 36, his estate still earns millions from sales of his music -- his "Legend" greatest hits disc has sold more than 20 million copies, and counting -- and the omnipresent T-shirt that bears his image.
"People love to listen to him at the beach, to hear 'Three Little Birds' or 'One Love' in parties," says filmmaker Kevin Macdonald. " 'Stir It Up' plays in elevators, supermarkets. He's become background music. Background noise, actually.'
And that's what Macdonald, who did documentaries such as "Being Mick" before breaking out in films with "The Last King of Scotland" and "State of Play," wanted to change.
"I wanted to rescue Bob from that fate. If you become ubiquitous, you become invisible all over again, like at the beginning of your career. I wanted to understand Bob, understand his music, hear his music afresh."
"Marley," now showing in the Dipson Eastern Hills Cinema, is Macdonald's critically acclaimed new documentary about the Jamaican reggae icon. The native Scot filmmaker was drawn to Marley's music as a teenager and vowed to spend years tracking down the people who never talk about Marley -- friends, relatives and estranged band mates -- to make the definitive film portrait of the singer/songwriter/Rastafarian prophet.
"Bob really is the only Third World superstar," Macdonald says. "Elvis grew up in poverty, but he grew up in the richest country in the world, at its richest time. The Beatles grew up working-class poor, but they had working TV sets in their homes. Bob Marley slept on a dirt floor, quit school at 12 and lived in real poverty -- rural Jamaica."
Making his film, Macdonald marveled at how Marley's laid-back, pot-smoking image, "the Bob Marley of myth," stood up to only so much scrutiny.
"He gave much of his money away, and sacrificed everything to get his music out there, heard, because to him, he was on a religious mission," Macdonald says. "So he wasn't a hypocrite. But he was driven, a real martinet with his band, the Wailers, rehearsing them 18 hours a day. He could easily have ended up a laborer, building roads in Jamaica. But his talent and his drive wouldn't let him."
Macdonald started planning to make the film after shooting his Oscar-winning drama "The Last King of Scotland" in Uganda in 2005. "Maybe in the U.S. and the U.K., we've kind of tuned Bob out. But in Africa, Uganda, his music and his image are everywhere. He's an icon. You see dreadlocks, see the T-shirts, and you realize he still lives on as an inspiration to the developing world. They don't know Elvis in the Congo, or the Beatles in Indonesia. But they know Bob Marley. Maybe we should take another look at him, too."