Three decades after his untimely death, Bob Marley is rewriting the rules of film distribution.
The trailblazing reggae singer, who succumbed to cancer in 1981 at the age of 36, remains a hugely inspirational figure to millions of people from Division Street to Dar es Salaam, and the producers of a recent documentary about his life, "Marley," are using every available method to connect his fans with their film.
On April 20 (when else?), they released the movie simultaneously in theaters, on iTunes, on VOD and on Facebook, where it has set the record for most streams of a feature film. (Theatrically, the film has grossed just under $1 million on well fewer than 100 screens.) And on May 19, Ziggy Marley -- Bob's oldest son, who served as co-executive producer on the film -- will join fans on Facebook to watch the documentary live and answer their questions about it. (You can sign up at apps.facebook.com/ziggylive/.)
"We'll be just chillin' and chatting about the film as it goes along," said Ziggy, who's a star musician in his own right. He cracked the Top 40 with the Melody Makers, a group composed of his siblings, and now performs as a solo artist. (His most recent album, Wild and Free, leads off with a duet with actor Woody Harrelson.)
"I won't be sitting there in people's living rooms or wherever they are, but for me, it's just like that, in terms of how I feel about it," he said of the Facebook chat. "We want it to be fun. We don't want it to be this kind of stiff thing."
"Marley" is no ordinary music documentary. Sure, there's plenty of sex (Bob had 11 children by seven women), drugs (the Rastafarian religion views marijuana as a sacred herb), and rock 'n' roll (Island Records president Chris Blackwell first marketed Bob Marley and The Wailers to English audiences as a black rock group). But Marley's intensely eventful life -- he rose from grinding poverty to become one of the most powerful and respected figures in Jamaica, then went on to inspire the world -- makes the average rags-to-riches-to-rehab saga look like an after-school special. And with Ziggy's endorsement, director Kevin Macdonald ("The Last King of Scotland") got the whole story from the people who were along for the ride.
"The opportunity to speak to the people who actually knew Bob could only have happened because we said, 'Hey, these guys are coming down there, it's okay to talk to them,'" Ziggy explained. "We had to make some phone calls and get some opportunities and some doors open to get some information. I think once people knew that we were involved, and me personally was involved, they were comfortable speaking without holding back everything on Bob."
The Marley inner circle has spent a lot of time and money wrangling with bootleggers, knock-off artists and even some relatives over control of its patriarch's image, and it is wary of biographers and filmmakers looking to cash in on Bob's legacy. "I have an issue with everybody writing books about Bob, everybody doing films, all those authorities on Bob," Ziggy said. "Who are these people? I don't watch the stuff, because I know. I been around the real people who know Bob."
Macdonald won the family's trust in part because he wasn't "Bob-crazy," Ziggy said. "Fans love Bob, and they feel like they know Bob. We didn't need that. That's not the perspective we were looking for. We needed an objective view, not somebody that was making a film about their love of Bob."
Ziggy said the decision to release the film across multiple platforms all at once was a no-brainer.
"It's just a way of using all the avenues that are there. Why wouldn't you use them? The old models are slowly dying out," he said. "It's not a big marketing thing -- it's not all about that. It's about the people that love Bob. I mean, we don't need to be in every theater to reach his fans now. We have access over the Internet and by Facebook and other means to reach them. So we don't need the old route of distribution. We can find new routes."
One old route he wouldn't mind traveling is the path to Oscar gold next February. "With what we've seen, I actually expect and hope that it will be nominated," he said. "It deserves it, you know?"
A 2011 Billboard magazine feature titled "The Business of Bob Marley" detailed the Marley family's ambitious commercial enterprises, including an eco-friendly line of headphones positioned to compete with Dr. Dre's Beats by Dre. Did the family choose this moment to cooperate with a documentary in hopes of creating buzz for their other products?
According to Ziggy, the answer is no. "Everybody have them pet projects that they do," he said. "I was really involved in the movie -- that was my project, you know? Other people are involved in the coffee and the headphones and stuff like that, but we don't think about the film as a way to market stuff or whatever. We just think of the film as a documentary. to represent our father. If we get ancillary benefits from it, so be it, but we don't think about it that way."
Ziggy's other passions include politics -- he advocates legalizing marijuana and "liberating" the entire hemp plant, which can be used to manufacture clothes and other goods -- and superheroes. He recently published a comic book called "Marijuanaman," and gamely answered this reporter's admittedly goofy question about what superhero he relates to most.
"I'm digging Batman," said this wealthy scion who lost his father when he was just 13 years old and has devoted much of his life to social causes. "I'm digging that balance, that duality. He's always on the edge and trying to balance himself within the rules of what's lawful and justice, and being Bruce Wayne and being Batman. And because he doesn't have any superpowers, I think I relate to that more. He can't fly. I kinda like that. I kind of like that it's a little bit more realistic. So I relate to Batman a lot."