Marley paints a portrait of the famed musician in such a way that few films before it have been able to.
Many of us think we know Bob Marley. Years upon years of listening to the superstar reggae musician’s seminal works – not to mention his revered position within the zeitgeists of so many cultures – has fostered a natural sense of familiarity with the iconic figure, who stares out from the front of our tee-shirts or wall hangings with all the prominence of a religious figure.
If there is one thing to be said about the new documentary Marley – which looks back over life and career of Bob Marley – it’s that it clearly demonstrates the reality that many of us who think we know Bob Marley still have a lot to learn about the actual man, and the realities of his life story. For longtime fans and admirers who do know the details of Bob’s life, Oscar-winning director Kevin Macdonald’s (Last King of Scotland, One Day in September) documentary is a beautiful and reverent celebration of all that Marley was and has become in the eras since his passing.
Marley proudly touts the tagline of being the first documentary officially sanctioned by Marley family. In that sense, the film provides testimony from those who were actually close to Bob Marley and went through the journey of life alongside him. This means that we are getting first-hand insights from a large collection of people who were actually there, who actually know, rather than some studious fact-checker, scholar or filmmaker who simply thinks that they know (Macdonald remains behind the camera, allowing his “characters” to offer their accounts freely, with few prompts).
The “characters” themselves are also pretty entertaining to watch and listen to. They include Bob’s wife Rita, son Ziggy, daughter Cedella, longtime girlfriend Cindy Breakspeare (mother to hip-hop/reggae star Damian Marley), legendary record mogul Chris Blackwell, Trench Town locals who grew up with Bob and the various members of Marley’s band, “The Wailers,” who provide lively (and often heavily-accented) accounts of their times playing and touring with the musician. Bob himself is also ever-present throughout the film, thanks to an unprecedented collection of personal videos, recorded interviews, jam sessions, tour footage and everything in between that has captured and preserved the late musician’s essence onscreen. Each of these “characters” brings personality, insight and liveliness to the film, never letting it drag or slip into boredom – even at a running time of about two-and-a-half hours.
Visually, Marley is as lively and colorful as its characters. There are stunning shots of the Jamaican landscape all throughout the movie – from the lush green countryside and turquoise oceans, to the muddy and rusted huts of Trench Town, to the colorful outfits worn by the locals – Macdonald brings the country to such vivid life that, at the very least, this documentary doubles as a pretty good tourism brochure. We also get looks at the many places Bob visited or lived during his life – from London, to Africa, to Germany – even his brief time spent growing marijuana and working blue-collar jobs in Wilmington, Delaware (who knew?). The old archive footage has been cleaned up and polished, presenting classic performances and interviews in a way that viewers of the HD era will be able to appreciate.
Macdonald makes the smart move of using music as our guide through Bob’s history, from his early days playing in Trench Town bands to the creation of Reggae and his Rastafarian spiritual awakening. The story is punctuated by many familiar Marley songs (plus some previously-unreleased recordings), creating that warm feeling of adoration that so many people have for the music, even as we come learn about the circumstances and context that helped create the songs we thought we knew and understood so well. It’s an eye-opening experience, to say the least (such as learning that many of Marley’s most famous songs came from a time and headspace when the musician was adhering (with militant discipline) to a religious practice that some might view as a cult).
If there is one criticism I have with this documentary, it’s that it unquestionably favors and celebrates Bob Marley, while skipping over some of the more debatable or questionable aspects of his personality and choices. The film doesn’t ignore Marley’s shortcomings completely: for instance, his wife Rita is briefly questioned about how she balanced her love against Bob’s many affairs and illegitimate children, to which she gives a brief and concise response about greater purpose, which is exactly where Macdonald leaves the topic. However, Bob’s daughter Cedella is the only person who offers anything less than a shining picture, as she describes to us Bob Marley the questionable parent, rather than the world-renowned superstar. But again, the film only touches lightly on this topic here and there, quickly pulling away whenever things get too heavy or critical.
Admittedly, Macdonald was likely facing a double-edged sword when making this film: the approval of the Marley family and deep level of access likely came at the condition that the filmmakers wouldn’t besmirch Bob’s image and legacy. While Marley may be a bit too saccharine in some ways, by now Bob Marley – as an icon – is undoubtedly larger than his shortcomings as a man, and fans seeking out this documentary aren’t likely to mind the favorable bias, as they too want to celebrate the musician, rather than lower his pedestal.
In the end, Marley paints a portrait of the famed musician in such a way that few films before it have been able to. From the big moments to the small, viewers will walk away knowing Bob Marley in much more intimate and accurate fashion, rather than the specious, superficial or incomplete picture they may have had before.
Not-so-concidentally, Marley is being released in limited theatrical run and Video on Demand on April 20, 2012. It is Rated PG-13 for drug content, thematic elements and some violent images.