On Monday night in Little Haiti, the Moksha Gallery hosted an intimate, invite-only screening of Bob Marley: The Making of a Legend. No, not the over-hyped, Hollywood documentary Marley. Legend depicts filmmaker and star of the film Esther Anderson as a key figure behind the scenes in the rise of Island Records and its greatest artist, Bob Marley. She was also Bob Marley's girlfriend, until she found out the hard way that Marley was already married with children.
With the stoner holiday 4/20 a few days away, Moksha, known for bringing underground gems to Miami, comfortably welcomed a packed house of about hundred.
Featuring lost footage of Bob Marley, and a slew of Ms. Anderson's pictures, the movie chronicles a period of Bob Marley's life prior to his rocketing fame, specifically the years 1972-74. Esther Anderson, in her own right, was a model and actress fresh off appearing as an African princess in Sidney Poitier's A Warm December, a role in which she won a NAACP Image Award for Best Actress. Ms. Anderson was already a star with the world at her feet when she decided to put aside acting to help foster Island Records.
Having lived in London for years, Anderson believed in the idea of a Jamaican super-band, a la The Beatles or Rolling Stones. And this dynamo of a woman, along with Island Records' founder Chris Blackwell, was committed to bringing the idea to fruition.
Anderson also wanted to make movies, this time as a filmmaker. Armed with a 35mm camera, she headed to Jamaica in 1972 to spend some time with Bob Marley and the Wailers. Many iconic Marley images came from the lens of Esther Anderson, yet due to a 30-year misplacement of the film footage by Island Records, and legal issues around the intellectual property of her photos, Anderson found herself in a tangled web.;
In a recent interview with the Trinidad Express, she expresses the injustice.
"This film represents many years of research and development, including regaining control of my own creative works. The old tradition of exploitation, piracy and abuse of the Caribbean by the Metropolis is still alive in many forms."
Eventually, Ms. Anderson did gain access to the film and could make the movie.
Unfortunately, her movie is inherently flawed.
With a shoestring budget, and legal problems, the filmmakers faced an uphill climb on a steep, metaphoric Blue Mountain; they couldn't use any of Bob Marley's music due to licensing issues.
All they had were her pictures and long-lost footage, the most powerful of which, like Marley singing at his first-ever rehearsal with the Wailers, she couldn't obtain the licensing necessary to include in the documentary. And what she could use, at times, felt boring: there's Marley changing a tire; Marley smoking a spliff; Marley talking politics; Marley looking for keys to the recording studio; Marley talking religion; Marley stoned off his ass; Marley eating fish.
Typical of a low-budget documentary, there are lots of voiceovers, interviews, and still shots from the photo archives. This is not to say the movie is bad. Flawed, yes. Bad, no.
This film is extremely important for one reason: context. The film provides an invaluable glimpse into a critical time of one of the world's most beloved musicians. And with that context comes truth; historians should be well served by this movie.
What this movie does not do, which it could have easily done, was morph into a sentimental, biased, revenge song from a jilted lover. Ms. Anderson must have been devastated to learn her lover had a family with another woman, yet there's no evidence of it in the film. On the contrary, what we see is a strong, successful black woman who seemed every ounce the feminist of the times.
In one scene, we learn the origin of the lyrics to "I Shot the Sheriff." At the time, Ms. Anderson was on birth control pills, and Mr. Marley thought the pills were sacrilege. He wanted her to have his baby. He believed their love was strong and it was sin to kill his seed. The doctor who prescribed those baby-killing pills became the sheriff. And thanks to this movie, these lyrics, which Anderson helped write, are now put into a proper context:
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Sheriff John Brown always hated me,
For what, I don't know:
Every time I plant a seed,
He said kill it before it grow
Tidbits like this are invaluable. And they quite clearly invoke a feminine power in Ms. Anderson. This beautiful woman was a pioneer in many ways and this movie is as just as much about her as it is Marley. It's no surprise the progressive movie icon Marlon Brando was attracted to her; they had a seven-year relationship, around this time period, which honestly seems more interesting than her relationship with Marley.
Now 65 and beautifully weathered, embers of the past still burn deep in Anderson's eyes while the footage of her youth lives on forever. This movie is her love song. It is a portrait of a young woman as an artist. Who knows? Time and history may come to realize this pioneering woman as the Frida Kahlo of Jamaica. There's a story here that could make a brilliant documentary -- but only for a filmmaker with a decent budget and no copyright issues.