Here's Looking at Jah

I had the privilege of attending two Bob Marley concerts in my life. Both were in the Seventies and in England, an island not as far removed from Marley's own, Jamaica, as their different climates and race denominations would indicate. The English worshiped Marley's outsized personality and were equally captivated by the subtle, melancholy rhythms of reggae. At the time, no one could prophesy that, as they were jammin' in the name of the Lord, there was a finality about the reggae master's appearances -- that the man born in 1945 to a white father and black mother and who raised the conscience of an entire generation would die of cancer in 1981 in Miami at age 36. A new film tribute directed by Declan Lowry entitled, Bob Marley: Time Will Tell, is a beautiful reminder of the artist we lost eleven years ago, a record spoken entirely in his own words, drawn from extant documentary interview footage interspersed with concert performances from the dawn of Marley's career in the Sixties through his last gigs in Germany.

Given that the legal haggles and backbiting over Marley's estate have been so vitriolic and so widely reported -- including by New Times -- it may come as a surprise that no colleagues, friends, and above all, family members, many of whose critical opinions would have been invaluable in assessing the man in historical and personal terms, are ignored in favor of the simpler method of letting the man speak for himself. But Time Will Tell doesn't attempt to be the definitive biographical portrait of Marley. Rather it gives us a chance to revisit a life's work -- and what better tour guide to Bob Marley's world than Bob Marley? The film is admirably free of gossipy theatrical effects, much as one imagines the man to have been.

Some of the best-known songs are featured: "No Woman No Cry," "Exodus," the early "Trenchtown Rock," "Redemption Song," "I Shot the Sheriff," "Jammin'," "Stir it Up," and "Lively Up Yourself," among others totaling an impressive 26 numbers, most taken from live concerts and TV appearances. The footage delivers a fine memento of Marley's controlled passion onstage, his fine chiseled face and yearningly sincere expression while singing, plus the unique character of his voice, an instrument neither beautiful nor enormous, but still more expressive than any.

As an interviewee, Marley's candor before the camera on matters such as politics in Jamaica (he and his family were shot during a raid on their house during Jamaica's turbulent mid-Seventies), the Rastafarian faith, the inspiration of the Ethiopian emperor, Haile Selassie, the advocacy of smoking weed (or "herb," as he calls it), and most importantly, his benign vision of the world as represented by his music ("I'm a people man"), is very impressive. The spoken patois may be difficult to follow sometimes, but Marley possessed the gift to make himself understood by the mere raising of an eyebrow or the flashing of a grin. Here he gives the impression that his observations are just the tip of a well-concealed treasure of wisdom.

And yet, Time Will Tell ultimately paints a man who remains an elusive figure, earthy and lofty in equal proportions. Only when we see and hear the music do we begin to understand Marley's spiritual dimension, and then the most jarring realization comes -- that genius, while readily appreciable by human beings, is not such a human thing after all.

BOB MARLEY: TIME WILL TELL Directed by Declan Lowry. Unrated. Opens Friday at the MiamiWay Theatre, 12615 W. Dixie Hwy, North Miami; call 887-4460 for times.

 
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