At the time, Macdonald claimed only an interested layman’s knowledge of Bob Marley’s life and career. Like many casual fans worldwide, he knew the man so often referred to as a “reggae superstar” had achieved a level of popularity even more remarkable for its breadth across the globe than for its depth.
“Then I went off and made The Last King of Scotland, which I filmed in Kampala in Uganda. And one of the things that really struck me – because I had Bob Marley on my mind a little bit – was that as I wandered around, particularly in the poorer areas of Kampala, I saw all these Bob Marley images everywhere – on flags and graffiti, with lyrics put up all over the place – quotes from his songs. And I thought, ‘This is amazing. What is it about Marley that has traveled the world? What is it that means something even in Africa, even in Uganda of all places?’”
Then, in March 2010, Macdonald received a phone call from the producers at Shangri-La Entertainment to tell him that they – including Shangri-La founder Steve Bing – were committed to making the definitive movie about Marley, and that Chris Blackwell had recommended him as a possible director. Macdonald says that he has now come to believe that he was simply destined to be the man to tell this unforgettable story.
“What is to be must be – that old saying is something that we really believe in,” says Bob’s oldest son, David “Ziggy” Marley. “So Kevin was supposed to do the documentary, is how we look at it. I wasn’t worried, I wasn’t fussing….I knew it would get done, and I knew it would get done by whoever was supposed to do it in the first place.”
And so, Macdonald would begin the process of working with the Marley family – chiefly Ziggy, his sister Cedella (named for Bob’s mother), and their mother, Bob’s wife, Rita Marley.
“The attitude I had,” Macdonald remembers, “was to persuade them nothing good has really been made in terms of a documentary about Bob, and now was the time to do it before even more people pass away. That’s what I said to Ziggy when I first met him – I said, ‘I want to do the most conventional thing possible. I want to go out with a camera and interview absolutely everybody. I’m not going to just stick with who they’ve talked to before.’…. A problem with a lot of the big stars – in particular Bob because he’s almost got this image of a prophet – is that people forget to ask the personal questions – what was his family like? His father? Why was he like he was? Why was he so driven?”
Of course to aid his compelling narrative, Macdonald has used some of the great Bob Marley material – including “Exodus,” “No Woman, No Cry” – in addition to a few obscure but illuminating discoveries. But he discovered that, despite yeoman work by seasoned archival researcher Sam Dwyer, there was precious little material to be found, either from the musician’s youth, or from his fledgling years as a reggae performer.
“Obviously one of the challenges with Bob is that there’s so little great archive footage,” said Macdonald. “There’s nothing at all of the first 11 years of his career. From 1962 to 1973 there’s not a single piece of footage, and only a handful of photographs.”
Case in point: The Wailers, the breakthrough group that Bob formed with Peter Tosh and Neville “Bunny” Livingston, once simultaneously had five of the top 10 singles on the Jamaican charts early in their career, yet despite their relative prominence at the time, the interest and infrastructure necessary to chronicle their career was simply lacking.
“It just shows a lot about what Jamaica was like then,” said Macdonald, “and what the standing of Jamaican music was as well – that nobody filmed the Wailers, nor, for many years, took them seriously.”
So in interviewing some 60 people, with maybe half of those interviews being cut into the film, the director had Marley’s ongoing legacy in mind: “That’s history that can go into the archive.” With what he does include in the film, Macdonald lets Bob’s story be told by the voices of those who knew him best.
Macdonald credits Bunny has one of two key interview subjects included in the film, who guide the audience through the film – especially Bunny, who knew Bob since they were children, and whose recollections take the audience through until 1973, and the split in the band. After that, the chief narrative duties are taken over by Neville Garrick, the Wailers’ artistic director, who was with Bob through the remainder of his life. Garrick was, like Bunny, “very articulate and inventive with language,” Macdonald recalls. “Both of them were very fun to listen to.”