By Becky Tan
Film festivals in general, and the Berlinale is no exception, seem to thrive on drama, tragedy, love, hate, death, and desperation. Sometimes all this serious drama is too much and I crave a comedy. Have you ever tried to find a comedy in a film festival? It’s a rare jewel, practically impossible. In lieu of comedy, this time I looked for something musical, and stumbled upon my favorite film: Marley. It’s a documentary about the life of the musician Bob Marley, one of the most successful musicians in the 20th century or as Wikipedia says, “the first third-world rock star.” To think that I knew nothing about him and now I am a fan.
Scottish director Kevin Macdonald takes us to the island of Jamaica where Marley was born February 6, 1945, to a black mother Cedella Booker and a white British father Norvel Sinclair Marley, originally from Sussex. As a teenager he began to make music and gradually cut records, making the reggae style of music famous. In 1963 he formed the band which became The Wailers. He joined the Rastafarian movement, wore the characteristic dreadlocks and believed, as the Rastafarians did, that Haile Selassie (emperor of Ethiopia) was the second coming of Christ. His big break came in London when producer and founder of Island Records Chris Blackwell agreed to give him the financial support necessary to cut an album, which he did in Jamaica. They became good friends and eventually Marley took over Blackwell’s house in Jamaica, the famous 56 Hope Road, which was also his office and meeting place for musicians and friends from all over the world. Although married to Rita Anderson, he had various affairs, and eleven children from seven wives are officially recognized as his. He became ill with cancer, kept on performing until his last concert which was September 1980 in Pittsburgh, USA. He sought medical help from Doctor Josef Issels, a German with a hospital in Bavaria. He died of cancer in Florida on May 11, 1981, as he attempted a final return flight to his Jamaican home.
All of this is in the film. Naturally, you can get the facts from many historical sources, but these sources can never relay the spirit of the film: the green mountains, the crowded streets of Kingston, the lilting Jamaican English, as well as the music itself, unforgettable “I Shot the Sheriff” or “No Woman No Cry.” I counted 66 songs. Former band members, leaders in the music world, his wife Rita, some girl friends, two of his adult children, the British half siblings from his father’s relationships in Great Britain, and many others, appear on screen to share their oral histories. Marley used music and his vision of a peaceful world to further political activism both in Jamaica and Zimbabwe, as well as in other countries. One time he and members of his family were injured during a terrorist attack on his house.
At the press conference, his son Rohan Marley, complete with Rastafarian dreadlocks, answered questions about growing up with his father, “We may call him Daddy, but we were only one of many.” Marley was hugely generous and at least once a week people lined up at his front door asking for favors and financial support for themselves and their children – everyone was his child. Of the 66 songs in the film, 50 were by Marley himself – a unique chance to hear them all in 144 minutes – a long film which never seems long. The Bob Marley charisma literally jumps from the screen, and I was not the only female critic to be totally captivated by his impish smile. A big thank you to director Macdonald for creating this work of art, after both Martin Scorsese and Jonathan Demme cancelled their intentions to take on the project.
Music often leads to gay films. And so I saw Leave it on the Floor, a colorful fictional remake of the classic documentary Paris is Burning from 1991 (which won the Teddy Award in that year’s Berlin International Film Festival). Director Sheldon Larry moved the location of this feature film from New York City to Los Angeles. African-American Brad (Ephraim Sykes), age 22, is gay, a “condition” which his mother refuses to accept. Thrown out of the house, he moves into the House of Eminence, where there are others like him, i.e., homosexual and homeless. The residents care for each other, overseen by a “dorm mother” Queen Latina (Miss Barbie-Q). In their free time they rehearse in order to compete in wildly exotic drag queen fashion shows with music and gorgeous people strutting down the ramp dressed as everything from royalty to girl scouts to muscle men to Whitney Houston.
Director Sheldon worked with script writer Glenn Gaylord to present the fictionalized version of a real event: the underground ball culture, organized by “ball communities.” These competitions are fierce and bring recognition to the house which wins. In Leave it on the Floor Brad represents his House of Eminence. In a discussion with the audience after the showing, several men talked about other houses they knew in NYC, such as House of Garçon. They said that these houses are heavily African-American in Los Angeles, but more Caucasian and Hispanic in New York. They are a “gay family reinvention, safe and supportive.” The story of Leave it on the Floor is not so important; it is the individual actors, such as Philipp Evelyn II (who plays an elegant Princess Eminence and came to Berlin for the showing), the costumes, and the music which carry the film. Glenn Gaylord also wrote lyrics for 12 of the 22 songs, assisted by Kimberly Burse (who is also the music director for Beyoncé).
And then, for good measure, there was the wonderful 25-minute short film The Man that Got Away by Trevor Anderson. In dance and musical form with just a small cast Anderson tells the true story of his great uncle Jimmy who grew up on the farm in Canada with his brothers. They were athletes; he was a tap-dancing wonder child (Arn McConnell is fantastic as the young boy). As the dancers change roles, we see how Jimmy grows up, joins the navy and realizes that he is gay. On his way out of Canada, he meets Judy Garland in an asylum and together they dance out the 12 Steps of Recovery. The actors wear original costumes and carry props, but perform on the plain ramp of a parking garage. The production tickles your imagination to the point that you no longer realize that it is a parking garage. The Deutsche Akademische Austausch Dienst (DAAD) gave it a prize for best short film – there should have been many more prizes—but no.
My first Berlinale film this year was a Russian black-and-white, silent movie, restored from the archives: Oktjabr. It first appeared in 1927, directed by Sergej Eisenstein. Maybe you wouldn’t associate “silent movie” with “music,” but in this case it was accompanied from start to finish by the Rundfunk Sinfonieorchester Berlin, under the direction of Frank Strobel. Made ten years after the Russian Revolution in 1917, it retells the story of that bloody and furious time, when the peasants were starving and soldiers were on the road. Filmed at original locations, it created a kind of scandal at the time and was withdrawn after initial showings, then rewritten and distributed in bits and pieces. Now the original has been restored and the orchestra played the original music composed by Edmund Meisel.
So there I was, at 11 in the morning, sitting with a small group of selected viewers at the dress rehearsal with the 100-member orchestra magically creating a marvellous sound that rose up all around me in exact time and feeling to correspond with the action on screen. It was a miracle; the music made the acting come alive and nothing seemed old fashioned. I was especially excited because I had just “taught” this chapter of history to eighth-graders at our local International School. We had discussed why the boy cadets defended the Winter Palace, and then, suddenly, there they were on screen. In retrospect, after all the destruction of bridges, arrival of English tanks, sailors firing from ships, and rich old ladies fighting with umbrellas, I was most impressed with the actors, who were actual veterans of the revolution; I can not forget their terribly rotten, brown or missing teeth. Everyone smiled unselfconsciously (no Hollywood-perfect dentures), smiles which made the whole film even more endearing and believable.