Macdonald’s ‘Marley’ opens on 4/20, peers past the haze

By | April 18th, 2012 | 3 Comments
Bob Marley

Marley attempts a comprehensive portrait of a complex, often pigeonholed icon. -- photo via

What comes to mind when you hear the name “Bob Marley”? Is it reggae’s mellow, syncopated beats? How about that serene, dreadlocked face that has decorated so many college dorm rooms? Maybe a certain pungent aroma is wafting its way inside your cerebral cortex. The Jamaican singer-songwriter was many things to many people, so wouldn’t it be folly to make a definitive documentary about his life?

Marley, a sprawling, stunningly comprehensive portrait of the Caribbean superstar, attempts to climb that daunting peak. The film, which had its local premiere Monday, April 9, at the Colony Theater, appears, at first glance, to be an ill fit for filmmaker Kevin Macdonald, who paved the way for Forest Whitaker’s 2007 Oscar win as Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland. The Scottish director (State of Play, Touching the Void) favors straightforward, issue-driven storylines, so it seems strange that he would be drawn to a subject that practically demands an outside-the-box treatment.

It turns out that a conventional approach was precisely what the material, a long-in-the-works project for Macdonald, needed. What comes through in every frame of Marley is a disciplined, admirably restrained sense of balance, a commitment to cover every aspect of the man’s life and times without allowing one element to upstage the others. Even within the trappings of nonfiction (i.e. talking-head interviews, archival footage), the film’s narrative arc plays like a showbiz rags-to-riches yarn: dirt-poor, racially mixed outcast is raised by a single mother in the slums of Kingston, achieves global fame by popularizing Jamaican music — and culture — on the global stage, and is struck down by a fatal illness at the peak of his career.

The early scenes, which cover Marley’s childhood growing up in Saint Ann’s Parish, benefit from Macdonald’s priceless present-day footage of the icon’s old neighborhood. The director even sits down with some local old-timers who remember the half-caste boy who would become the face of Jamaica to the rest of the world. (Their accents are so thick that Macdonald wisely adds subtitles to many of these interviews.) Marley then dives into Bob Marley & The Wailers’ rise to fame, a journey Macdonald chronicles with a biographer’s methodical attention to detail.

He also explores how Marley’s prominence was inextricably tied to a turbulent political climate in Jamaica and how his success threatened to upset the country’s rigid class divide. At the same time, he never loses sight of the performer’s personal life. Especially noteworthy is how the film deals with Marley’s infidelities, and how his wife, Rita, who became one of his backup singers, coped with her husband’s wandering eye. (In addition to Rita, Marley includes the affecting testimony of his daughter Cedella, who attended the Colony Theater premiere and participated in a brief Q & A with rakontur’s Billy Corben.)

It’s a bracing juggling act Macdonald pulls off here, a richly layered profile of the man, the musician, and the political figure. If there’s one aspect the film could have covered more thoroughly, it’s Marley’s role as a spiritual leader. We know he had an open-door policy in his Kingston home slightly reminiscent, to this reviewer, of John Lennon’s laissez-faire humanism, but Macdonald opts to gloss over Marley’s status as the poster boy for Rastafarianism.

As a kaleidoscopic glimpse of a musical force of nature, however, Marley hits all the right beats. “Sister, I’m bringing the ghetto uptown,” Marley famously quipped. Those jumping dread locks did a lot more than that, and Marley is a moving tribute to just how far they reached.

Marley begins an exclusive run at O Cinema this Friday (yes, it’s 4/20). For showtimes, visit

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3 Comments on “Macdonald’s ‘Marley’ opens on 4/20, peers past the haze”

  1. 1 Kaelsie said at 4:16 pm on April 18th, 2012:

    I was at the premiere and thought the movie was excellent. His life was fascinating. Most of all, I was shocked to learn how ambitious and hard working Marley was. Makes me question all of my preconceived notions about stoners!!

  2. 2 Michael said at 4:29 pm on April 22nd, 2012:

    I don’t usually like to leave negative comments but on this occasion I feel I must because I am disappointed in this review. I feel that while it was indeed well researched, comprehensive and covered a lot of points of the movie, that cannot be denied, the author seems to reduce Marley to third world ganja smoking ghetto yout. I have a problem with this. Especially when he chooses to include quotes such as when Marley said “Sister, I’m bringing the ghetto uptown” – this is hardly remarkable in comparison to the other much more profound comments and remarks he made during his lifetime, that were also included in the movie. It would have been better if he focused on the more inspirational side of the story.

    As a final note, I would also like to encourage the writer to think twice when using the term “half caste” – it can be regarded as an offensive term to mixed race people. Perhaps he would like to check out the poem by John Agard entitled Half-caste:

  3. 3 Ruben Rosario said at 1:10 am on April 23rd, 2012:

    Thank you so much for taking the time to comment on my “Marley” review, Michael. I found your feedback very constructive.

    I chose to end my review with Marley’s “bringing the ghetto uptown” quote because it was an empowering, direct way of expressing how Marley’s success upset Jamaica’s class system. Neither this quote nor the use of the term “half caste,” which is used at least once in Kevin Macdonald’s film, were meant to offend my very esteemed readers, and I apologize if it rubbed you or anyone else the wrong way. There’s a Spanish word for Marley’s mixed racial heritage: mestizo. I wish an English-language equivalent existed, because I would have definitely used it instead.

    As regular readers will attest, however, I tend to favor punchy, occasionally snarky, politically incorrect rhetoric in my prose. (You should read my reviews of movies I _didn’t like!) My detractors call me a troublemaker, a term I wear as a badge of honor. :-)

    Regarding the inspirational side of Marley’s life, I have to admit that uplifting tales about the triumph of the human spirit usually make me want to reach for the barf bag, and what I especially liked about Macdonald’s film is that it doesn’t shy away from the singer’s less flattering traits. It really won me over.

    Thanks again for reaching out. I really appreciate your thoughtful observations.



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