If asked to name one reggae performer, most folks would say "Bob Marley," and plenty couldn't name a second. The dominance Marley had — and continues to hold — over that indigenous Jamaican music runs through Marley, a documentary directed by Kevin Macdonald (The Last King of Scotland). The fervent focus on Marley means a windfall of footage and intimate recollections, but it also deprives viewers of larger context that may have made a more informative film.
Marley is a straightforward bio-doc, beginning with Marley's humble birth in 1945 through his success as a performer and Jamaican figurehead, to his death from cancer, in 1981.
Among the film's highlights are historic concerts caught on film — Marley performing at a Jamaican "peace" concert hours after being shot or at Zimbabwe's chaotic liberation ceremony. The offstage material (family snapshots and film) depicts Marley as a son, father, soccer buddy. All this footage is supplemented by personal reminiscences from his wide circle of family and colleagues, covering Marley's musical roots, his Rastafarian awakening, his complicated relationships, his global travels, as well as his obsessive creative spirit and commitment to being an inspirational voice for the poor and oppressed.
Marley's extraordinary intimacy and rare footage is likely due to the cooperation of the Marley family and significant collaborators, such as Bunny Wailer and record mogul Chris Blackwell, many of whom are listed as film producers. Thus, with these folks holding the reins, some more contentious parts of Marley's life are glossed over. (There's very little detail about money or business deals, besides amusing anecdotes.)
This hagiographic focus places Marley in a cultural vacuum. There's never any real sense of his influence on the broader rise of reggae and other musical forms, nor would you ever know there were scores of other popular reggae performers. (Last year's doc on Lee "Scratch" Perry also suffered from such myopia; there's an opportunity out there for a comprehensive, thoughtful doc about reggae's 1970s glory years.)
Given the significance, breadth and success of Marley's legacy, I wish Macdonald had answered some more probing questions. Even after two-and-half hours, Marley left me pondering: Did the zillions of people who bought Marley's greatest-hits Legend ever buy another reggae LP? What about Marley's posthumous role as a feel-good "rebel" branding tool? Where's all this money going?
Undeniably, Bob Marley was a singular performer and remarkable creative force, and Marley certainly explains why. If you're even a casual fan, you will want to see this film. And if the work never really leaves Marley's inner circle, well, that's still a pretty compelling and entertaining place to be.