Director: Kevin MacDonald (Touching the Void, The Eagle)
Run Time: 145 minutes
At my old summer camp we had a visitor, his name unfortunately eludes me, who was persecuted as a Tutsi during the Rwandan genocide. One afternoon during rest period I was walking along a dirt path enjoying the scenery. I saw the man and couldn’t resist but introduce myself. The man was so pleasant, always laughing heartily and holding a beatific smile. I asked how he kept hope during those few tragic months in 1994. His face turned almost wistful, scooping up one great memory in a mire of sad ones, and remarked: “Bob Marley. One Love.”
I’ll never forget that. This shows you the true power of music, especially of Bob Marley, Jamaica’s reggae revolutionary and Rastaman, who died at the too young age of 36. With Scottish director Kevin MacDonald’s admirable documentary Marley, Bob is finally canonized. While his 1984 posthumous album “Legend” put his music in a pantheon, this cinematic treatment serves as a way to visually explore his life from his 1945 birth in Saint Ann, Jamaica to his passing in Miami, Florida in 1981.
It is a treatment, alright. A 145-minute treatment. But Mr. Marley has done more than earned it, with a career that spread music as much as his peaceful Rastafarian philosophy. He became Rastafarian in the 1960s; hitherto, he was raised a Catholic by his mother Cedella Booker. His father was Norval Sinclair Marley, a Briton from Sussex, England. His mother would leave for Delaware, but Bob stayed in Jamaica, where he recorded his first two singles “Judge Not” and “One Cup of Coffee”, and his gift for poeticisms was revealed.
The documentary follows Marley through his entire music career. Of course, it really began with his band The Wailers in 1963, formed by himself, Bunny Wailer, Peter Tosh, Junior Braithwaite, Beverley Kelso, and Cherry Smith, which lasted for about a decade. In this time, Marley married Rita Anderson, developed his Rastafarian beliefs and grew those durable dreadlocks as a mark of his singularity. The Wailers’ fifth and most famous album, Catch A Fire, gave Marley tremendous positive critical consideration and, when The Wailers broke up, his solo career went sky high.
The rest, you probably know, is history. Marley wrote some of the most timeless and blissful lyrics, uncompromisingly singing about peace and love when other musicians – great as some were – warped together music that raged irreverently against the machine. Marley believed in all-out peace and the divine exchange of respect among people. His lyrics resiliently rang out hope and stability in times of the contrary. Bob, nevertheless, on some Messianic mission. His friends speak of him kindly, one calling him “straightforward; so frank, simple and humble.”
You may feel the same about Kevin MacDonald’s documentary. It is incredibly straightforward and follows the familiar template of biographical documentaries. MacDonald employs his copious amount of interviews with Bob’s close family and friends to compliment the visuals on-screen. MacDonald never really slows things down to meditate and try to evoke Marley’s spirit or, as Jamaicans call, the “duppy” (the benevolent kind, of course). This is a recap of an extraordinary life and it’s a pleasure witnessing it.
The second half of Marley is particularly interesting, because it focuses on the political tension of the 1970s in Kingston, Jamaica that found Bob stuck in the middle. In late ’76, Bob would be shot in his trailer. The motive was unfathomable, because Bob neither defended Michael Manley’s People’s Nationalist Party or Edward Seaga’s Labour Party. The assassination attempt was an act of politics, but Marley was an independent. Regardless, he would play a concert that very night.
Bob lived a life in full speed. He never stopped dancing to the music and enjoying the rhythm of life. His reckless joy ultimately cost him his life, when he discovered that a cancer had spread around his body. It was originally a malignant melanoma under a toenail, but this disease was fatal. Marley’s last concert was at Stanley Theater in Pittsburgh, where he performed two encores as a final goodbye to fans who had no idea of his sickness.
The last moments of Marley are quite poignant as we witness a legend live out his last days in holistic therapy. The end of MacDonald’s documentary, however, bittersweetly replaces melancholy with triumph as the credits show people celebrating Marley’s music and image in areas all around the world. It’s a thoughtful way to conclude this long yet important document that somehow manages to examine Marley’s life with considerable clarity.
My reservation is that Marley never defines who Bob really was. The interviews are intriguing and often very funny, but feel to only graze the surface of Bob’s personality. I suppose, in a way, Marley is an examination of Marley the god not the man. Therefore, I meant what I said before: Marley is a canonization, a captivating salute to a musician who we will always remember as the “Legend”.