Great Britain

Jeremy Marre’s music documentaries are intimate portrayals of complex lives

“He managed to be one of the most famous people in the world without anybody really knowing much at all about him,” says the jazz critic Gary Giddins of Count Basie in Count Basie: Through His Own Eyes. The film merges never-before-seen home videos with archive concert reels and talking head interviews to explore the life and musical influence of the legendary American bandleader – and to allow its viewers to learn for the first time about his personal life, character and politics. If only for an hour, it makes you feel a little closer to his extraordinary talent.

Count Basie, which is due to be broadcast by the BBC in October, was the final film made by the British documentary maker Jeremy Marre, who died in March this year. Marre started his career travelling the world making films about international music that was little known in the UK at the time. He shot footage of Bob Marley and Jimmy Cliff in Kingston, Jamaica, for his first major success, Roots Rock Reggae (1977), part of his “Beats of the Heart” series, and now considered a classic of the genre. He was an influential tastemaker. In South Africa during the apartheid era, he recorded the Zulu choir Ladysmith Black Mambazo. Paul Simon saw the resultant film, Rhythm of Resistance (1979), and was inspired to record with the group for his celebrated album Graceland

In the last years of his life, Marre turned away from using whole countries or genres as his subjects and honed in on individuals, fearlessly piecing together films about popular music’s most intriguing characters, including Basie, who pioneered swing in the 1950s and was the first black person to win a Grammy, as well as Otis Redding, Marc Bolan, Amy Winehouse and Roy Orbison. 

“He was constantly pleasantly surprised by how much of a story there is, in any life, that is there for the telling if you know how to look,” said Jeremy Marre’s son, Oliver Marre, over the phone recently. These late films exemplify his knack for vivid character representation and fluent storytelling, which, even without prior knowledge of the subject or a fanaticism about their music, makes each film rich and compelling.

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Through his films, Marre gently teases out nuanced parts of complex, whole lives. In Marc Bolan: Cosmic Dancer, the T. Rex singer is described as a “glittering chipolata” and a “capricious talent, a rainbow of contradictions” by the industry insiders who comment on his extraordinary short life. Marre anchors the story with commentary from Bolan’s brother, Harry, whose tales of their childhood in London’s East End ground Bolan as a figure, in spite of the glam-rock flamboyance for which he later became known. The programme is narrated through Bolan’s own words – selected from diary entries and interviews, stylishly woven together and read aloud by an actor – to build an intimate, first-person portrait. 

Marre’s reluctance to use a more traditional third-person narration came down to his understanding of his work as artistic rather than journalistic. “One of the things that my father always stressed to people,” said Oliver Marre, “was that he did see himself principally as a filmmaker and not a musicologist. Music was the subject of many of his films, but his job was to make the films, to produce something for people to watch, yes as information, but also as entertainment.”

This observation makes Marre’s handling of the story of Amy Winehouse all the more impressive. Amy Winehouse: Back to Black is a dissection of the writing and recording process of the British singer’s second and final studio album, produced by Mark Ronson in New York and Salaam Remi in Miami. As a documentary, its focus is on the music – of the way Winehouse’s lyrics poured out of her following a heartbreak, of how her soulful vocals required just one or two takes to perfect, of her sibling-like fondness for both Ronson and Remi. The film, made in 2018, seven years after Winehouse’s death, paints a charming portrait of the troubled singer’s desires and talents. It refers to her substance abuse and early death – how could it not? – but it doesn’t dwell upon these facts in lieu of giving time to the music itself. A story like Winehouse’s, riddled with drugs and trauma, is easy fodder for cheap tabloid-like dramatisation. But Marre, despite his keenness to entertain rather than simply inform, was not in the market for such work. “He was an enthusiast. He was never voyeuristic,” said Oliver Marre.  

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This is evident too in the trust Marre sought and gained in the process of making these films. While his early programmes primarily featured fresh footage (“Marre had a knack of being in the right place at the right time”, reads his Guardian obituary), for his later projects he worked with archive recordings. For Count Basie, Marre received permission to use private letters, photo albums and home videos kept by Basie and his wife Catherine and never previously made public. They give a fascinating insight into the musician’s home life, particularly his dedication to his daughter, Diane, born in 1944, who is now understood to have cerebral palsy. In home movie footage, Basie is shown sitting with her behind a birthday cake, and, with Catherine, teaching Diane to swim in their home pool, despite doctors telling the Basies that she would never even walk. 

These small details help build up a multi-faceted portrait of the Count Basie we know: the all-smiling pianist and bandleader who was on the road 46 weeks of the year. At Marre’s insistence, and only possible because of the respect he garnered from his subjects’ families and estates, we begin to understand that these world-famous talents were complex, flawed people, with homes, families and loved ones – no matter how large their international fanbases grew. 

“Marc Bolan: Cosmic Dancer” is available on BBC iPlayer. “Roy Orbison: One of the Lonely Ones” will be shown on Friday 17 July at 11pm on BBC Four. “​Amy Winehouse: Back to Black” is scheduled for 31 July. “Count Basie: Through His Own Eyes” is due on the BBC in October.

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