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.