Written by Kate Kelsall
15 Sunday 15th April 2012

Often languid but entertaining watching, music biopics tend to see a string of past their prime industry big dogs ruminating on the unprecedented talent of their tragically posthumous contemporaries. What results is often  a disguised ego trip for the fabulously famous. Marley doesn’t lean on big names; Macdonald even resisted the temptation to include interviews with Stephen and Damian Marley on the reasoned grounds that they were too young to really know their father.

Neville 'Bunny' Livingstone

Instead we have an ensemble of interviewees collated from friends, family, and direct associates, a third of which have never previously appeared on television. The documentary illuminates Marley’s personality through rigorous accounts of his actions rather than praise and hyperbole. In this sense it is an objective historical account. Contentious areas are approached from different angles and opinions thus given a fair hearing.

For example his reputation as an epic womanizer is never affirmed nor denied; his wife and soul mate Rita (an effusive, warm woman who comes off particularly well throughout) is open and seemingly genuinely accepting of his promiscuity, whereas his daughter implies that Rita was long-suffering and quietly miserable. Whereas fellow Wailer, Bunny, insists that Bob was no lothario, but a shy man who women threw themselves at. This multilayered telling avoids simplification and corner cutting. However at a whopping 144 minutes, it does sometimes feel meandering and vague and will probably struggle to hold every audience member’s attention.

Rita Marley

Chronological for the most part, Marley extenuates on pivotal topics of interest as and when they arise. Political gang violence in Kingston, Rasta, and Bob’s involvement with African independence punctuate the biographical narrative, as does the technical and spiritual birth of reggae music. The many legal battles the musician got himself into are, rightly or wrongly, bypassed. These focus points give Marley a richness and variety missing from many features of the same genre.

For such an iconic character it is apparent that Macdonald had comparatively very little archival footage to play with. Unlike other musicians of the same ilk, Bob Marley gave few interviews and film and photographs are rather sparse, especially from the Wailers’ early years. The rare concert footage that is used packs a punch however. His performance at the politically charged Jamaican SMILE concert in 1978 – intense expression, erratic dancing and warm vocals – gives a resonant reminder of just why his legacy has been so longstanding.

The absence of archive material does mean there’s a slight lack on the visual stimuli side. However Marley is carried by the colourful characters that filled his life, like a living breathing memory. Lee Scratch Perry with his purple beard and immense eccentricity is a particular joy to behold. His very tongue in cheek take on the Jamaican spirit is disarming; “Nothing a Jamaican like more than a man fresh from a shooting” is the response to Marley's glorious reception at SMILE (he had been shot days earlier) and, on Mugabe, “We didn’t know he was a dictator until we got there. Then we had to play anyway.”

Nine Mile, Jamaica, where Bob Marley grew up

Interviewees look back with affectionate nostalgia and a sense of being part of something culturally radical. The days at 56 Hope Road, Kingston (Marley’s open house where he “brought the ghetto uptown, sister”) are vividly conjured, rising to the same heady associations as Warhol’s Factory and Keith Richard’s Redlands mansion. The documentary scores high in its ability to make its audiences witness something they would murder their grannies to have been involved with.

For the most part Macdonald’s directorial influence is light-handed, letting these jaunty, comic and informative narratives carry on uninterrupted. In one scene however he plays ‘Cornerstone’, an early Wailer track, to Marley’s two half-siblings and watches the effect of the lyrics “the stone that the builder refused/ Will always be the head cornerstone”, echo across their faces.

Kevin Macdonald with Neville Garrick and Rohan Marley at the Berlin Film Festival where the film was launched

This early sense of rejection is obviously something that stayed with Marley his whole life, and the documentary intimates that his search for fame and recognition was a cry for inclusion – “Let’s get together, and feel alright”. We see a vulnerable side to the son of a white colonial, caught between two worlds, never feeling that he belonged. Similarly, photographs of his last days, alien in the snowy landscape that surrounded the German clinic where he was being treated for cancer and with a big beanie concealing his de-dreaded bald head, are heartrendingly sad.

Atypical for its scope and genuine pathos, Marley provides fans with a thorough and thought provoking portrayal of their hero.

Marley is in cinemas nationwide from 20th April.

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