Searching For The Natural Mystic With Marley Director Kevin Macdonald
BR: When were the first seeds planted for doing this documentary?
KM: Two things happened early on. First – seven years ago, I think it was – there was a big concert planned to celebrate Bob’s 60th birthday in Ethiopia. I spoke to Island Records’ Chris Blackwell that weekend concerning making a documentary about taking a bunch of Rastas – who had never been to Africa – on a plane from Jamaica to Ethiopia for the concert to celebrate what would have been Bob’s 60th birthday. And for various reasons that fell apart, but I stayed in touch with the Marley world.
After that, I made the film The Last King Of Scotland in Uganda and I was so struck by how many images of Bob there were: people with dreads; quotes from his lyrics up on the wall … I thought, “This is amazing – what other musician or artist has had this kind of impact?” You go to Indonesia and there are trucks with Bob’s image on the side; you go to India and people are singing Bob’s lyrics. They’ve never heard of The Beatles, but they’ve heard of Bob Marley.
That’s what’s amazing: he’s the only Third World superstar. I mean, he grew up in a shack, sleeping on the mud floor – he appealed to the people of poverty because he knew what they were going through … and he could give them some hope, tell them things were going to get better and be all right in the end. The oppressed would be on top one day. And that was a great message for people.
That only increased my interest in Bob and my wanting to understand him better myself.
After that, I received a call out of the blue from Steve Bing, a producer, wondering if I was interested in doing this documentary.
BR: I’m guessing he didn’t have to ask twice.
KM: No. (laughs)
BR: Was there any one conversation you had while you were doing the interviews for the film that blew you away – that opened up your understanding about who Bob Marley was?
KM: Yeah … I think the conversation with Bob’s white cousin – a member of Bob’s father’s family. Norval Marley was this mysterious figure who sired Bob when he was 55 years old. He was a bit of a ne’er-do-well; a bit of a philanderer that Bob never really knew. I talked to one of the cousins from that part of the family as well as Bob’s half-sister.
BR: Oh, yes! That’s when you dropped “Cornerstone” on them, which Bob had written about being rejected by his father. While they were listening to the song, I held my breath, thinking, “Oh man – he’s gone too far. How’s this going to hit them?”
KM: Yes – that was a bit worrying. But what Bob’s half-sister said was interesting: about the significance of the song, and what it meant in terms of what drove Bob. He, in fact, proved to the white family, “I can succeed; you’re going to be forgotten, but I’m going to do something.” I think that his father’s rejection was part of the reason he was so ambitious.
BR: I remember after the song ends, she says that Bob’s the Marley that’s remembered.
KM: It’s a beautiful moment – and it really opened things up for me.
BR: Was there music that you uncovered while putting this together that you hadn’t heard before? For instance, I’d never heard that gospel-style demo of “No Woman, No Cry”.
KM: A collector had that – a guy who was very generous and gave us that to use. It’s a beautiful version: Peter Tosh on the piano … it has a very gospelly feel to it. There are a number of things – a cappella version of “Kaya” … some of the live video footage – that even the most hardened collectors and fans have never seen before.
BR: The still shots from the clinic months, which include Bob’s birthday in February of ’81, were powerful. And I was surprised to see some film footage of Dr. Issels.
KM: That was actually from a documentary made about Dr. Issels at that time – totally unconnected with Bob. It turned out that there was footage of the doctor and of the nurse who was there towards the end of Bob’s life.
BR: After talking with the friends and family about Bob’s death – the whole scenario with the infected toe that he chose to ignore and the eventual cancer that spread throughout his body – did it make it easier to understand why it happened? Or did it make it harder?
KM: Well, you know, it’s still mysterious in a way. I think that at the time, all medical opinions were that Bob should have his toe removed. He didn’t want to do that – I think partly because he believed that as a Rasta he lived healthfully and it wasn’t necessary.
But even deeper than that, Bob loved two things in life: he loved football – soccer, as you would put it – and he loved dancing and performing and making his music. Those things were his life … and I believe he thought, “If they chop my toe off, I’ll lose those things.”
Bob then found a doctor who said, “Oh, no – you don’t need to remove your toe; you just need to have this skin graft.” And that was what Bob wanted to hear, of course – he ignored all the other medical opinions. And then he never went for any checkups, you know?
I suspect that towards the end, Bob knew he was ill; he knew he was dying and he just hid it from everyone.
I think Bob just made his mind up: “I just want to keep performing as long as I can, making my music, and spreading my message. And when God decides to strike me down, I’ll just have to say good-bye.”