The 'State of Play' director takes on the reggae star's legacy in his latest documentary
Kevin Macdonald follows his Youtube documentary 'Life in a Day' with 'Marley', an exhaustive, authorised account of the life and work of reggae icon Bob Marley. The film, which had its world premiere at the Berlin Film Festival in February, features a wealth of interviews that honestly reveal the man behind the legend, and the experiences that forged the artist.
Dazed Digital: When did you become interested in Bob Marley?
Kevin Macdonald: One of the first three albums I ever bought was 'Uprising' and it had a big impact on me. It was a time of very soft music. Punk was coming towards an end, the New Romantics were coming up, and his music had a sort of dangerous quality to it that was attractive. But really I'm just very curious. Who was this person who has become the most iconic musician in the entire world?
DD: Did the Marley estate want an unvarnished portrait of the man?
Kevin Macdonald: Yes. If you imagine the estate is mostly his children – eleven kids – who have all inherited part of the estate, and the eldest of them, Cedella, was 12 when he died, they didn't really know him that well and I think there's a sense in which making a film about who he was is partly so that we can know who he was.
DD: Did you expect people to be as candid as they are about Bob in the film when you interviewed them?
Kevin Macdonald: No, like when Cedella talks about how much he hurt her and her mother by being unfaithful. But they're not stupid, they know that the more truthful they are, the more interesting it's going to be and the more people are going to watch the film.
DD: What surprised you most about Marley working on this project?
Kevin Macdonald: It sounds boring but just the simple thing that he wasn't the stoner layabout that you would imagine. He was a driven, utterly dedicated, focused person who, from the age of 16, wanted to be famous, wanted to be successful, wanted to get his message and ideas about Rastafari and the plight of the Jamaican people of the African diaspora to the world, and he was prepared to put up with any amount of shit to get there. That's why the Wailers, the original band, split up.
DD: You've said his music was culturally influential in the recent Arab uprisings. Why?
Kevin Macdonald: In Tunisia, certainly. I think it's because his music was written from the position of someone who feels downtrodden and a third class citizen, and not respected, and that, I think, is how people in Tunisia felt. Bob's music says that there is hope. That you will one day be victorious.
DD: Was he rich when he died?
Kevin Macdonald: Compared to a Lady Gaga or a U2, I don't think that rich. But he had a couple of million dollars in the bank which, in '81, was a lot.
DD: Why did he die?
Kevin Macdonald: Essentially he damaged his toe several times playing football and doing various things in his life, and he contracted a melanoma on his big toe. Doctors who I've spoken to say they don't really know why melanomas like that occur, that they're very rare. And they're particularly rare in people with coloured skin. But Bob was half white and half black, so that may have had something to do with it.
DD: Was he given any treatment?
Kevin Macdonald: He was advised by a doctor in Harley Street to cut the toe off but he didn't want to, because he loved football, and he loved dancing. And then he found a doctor that was willing to try just giving him a skin graft. This was in 1977. As far as I know he never went for a check up after that. Then in 1980, he was jogging in Central Park and collapsed. The doctors did a scan and found three tumours in his brain, and tumours elsewhere in his body.
DD: Then what happened?
Kevin Macdonald: He heard about this alternative therapy in southern Bavaria and that's where he spent, really, the last six months of his life, fighting the cancer in this wintry German snowy landscape, in a little wooden house. After a while they couldn't do anything more for him and he flew back to be with his family in Miami. Three days later he died.
Marley is out now