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SXSW 2012: Kevin Macdonald Talks 'Marley,' Music and Marijuana

The Oscar-winning director's new documentary on the reggae legend screened Sunday night at the Paramount Theatre.

Marley Berlin Film Still - H 2012

Kevin Macdonald’s Marley documentary screened at the SXSW Film Festival Sunday night, with Bob’s son Ziggy Marley, who runs his father’s estate, in attendance, as well as Willem Dafoe, in town with his latest film, The Hunter. After the Paramount Theatre screening, everyone gathered at Malverde, a slick, second-floor lounge/bar in downtown Austin, to listen to some Marley tunes and indulge in food, wine and other, uh, relevant recreational pursuits.

VIDEO: Magnolia Releases First U.S. Trailer for Kevin Macdonald's 'Marley' Doc

An Oscar winner for One Day in September, Macdonald had first tried to make a film about Marley seven years ago, around the time of what would have been the icon’s 60th birthday, but it never happened. He says he spent enough time in Jamaica working on it, however, to be on the radar of Island Records founder Chris Blackwell, who brought him in years later to meet with the Marley family on making an officially sanctioned documentary.

“They really wanted to make a film,” says Macdonald, the last in a line of high-profile directors, such as Martin Scorsese and Jonathan Demme, to discuss a film with Marley's many children. “They had felt like, before everyone dies who knew their dad and before that whole part of history disappears, we want to get it on film. The family learned a lot of stuff from watching the film that they didn’t know.”

When he was shooting The Last King of Scotland in the slums of the Ugandan capital of Kampala in 2005, Macdonald was struck by how pervasive the Marley iconography was beyond the music, and he wanted to explore just who Marley was as a man.

“There is probably no musical artist who has as wide an audience internationally as Bob does,” Macdonald says. “You can find people in any country in the world, whether the Arab world or Africa or Asia, who are into Bob. There is this huge built-in audience for people who want to know more about this man whose music speaks to them. And it’s a really interesting life story. He lived a rich and eventful life, he died tragically young, and it’s a great narrative. The amazing thing about Marley is that he’s utterly unique. There is no other superstar in the world of music who came from the Third World — he’s the only one who speaks to the developing world. He’s not just a popular musician, he’s a philosopher. He’s a prophet for them. He’s somebody who gives advice and succor in times of need. There’s nobody else who’s like that. That’s why I wanted to make a movie about him, to understand what he was saying and why he was saying it and why it is that the music has this ongoing resonance.”

Marley: Berlin Film Review

Given the reggae icon’s heavy marijuana usage, the crew did occasionally indulge when on Marley’s home turf. “You can’t go to Jamaica without having a few spliffs!” Macdonald says with a laugh. “That would be sacrilege. The problem is that so much of the ganja there is so amazingly strong now that you’re still going to be stoned the next day.”

A funny anecdote that didn’t make it into the finished film attests to Marley’s copious weed use. Macdonald says that during his research he met with the doctor who treated Marley during his first cancer operation. Apparently, when the doctors gave Marley the anesthetic, it had almost no effect and Marley was still awake on the table. “He didn’t pass out,” Macdonald says. “Because he was so inured. They had to give him like ten times the normal dose.”

Still, Macdonald feels that another result of his movie reaching a wide audience will be to dispel the notion that Marley’s marijuana use spoke to a certain slow-paced or lazy lifestyle. “He’s a guy who was driven, ambitious, hard-working — he drove his band to practice for 18 hours a day, he would do anything to get his music heard,” Macdonald says. “He really thought he was spreading a message.”