After taking an innovative approach to documentary making with the world-chronicling Life in a Day, director Kevin Macdonald went much more traditional with Marley, and the results are revealing and mostly satisfying—albeit somewhat exhaustive.
For this long-overdue movie about the reggae legend, MacDonald could have easily have made this a bloated mess, packed with stars and critics further analyzing Bob Marley‘s life. Instead, he uses remarkable access to Marley’s friends, family and bandmates to make this an often intimate, always entertaining and sometimes heartbreaking view of the man himself. Hit the jump for a review of Kevin Macdonald’s Marley on Blu-ray.
It would be impossible to make a nearly-great movie about Bob Marley without it being saturated with politics, but even as Macdonald weaves those strains through his flick, it is at heart still just about a man who loved “music, cricket and football.” From the movie’s beginning with Marley’s in a tiny shack in St. Ann, Jamaica, it’s how the political and personal strains mix that make Marley such a lively mix.
In getting early to what would make the identity of reggae’s leading man, Macdonald tells the story of Marley’s father, the white Jamaican Marine Norval Marley, who along with his military service was just as devoted to spreading his seed all around the island. Just as Macdonald lays out how Marley’s musical doctrine of a higher “One Love” sprang at least somewhat from him not fitting in perfectly with any one racial group, he later gets into – with some of Bob Marley’s many children – just how much it was like father, like son.
From there, Macdonald’s movie works seamlessly into the origins of reggae’s move into Western culture with many of the players that made it happen – the good, the bad and the ugly. It’s as achingly beautiful to hear gems like Marley’s first recording for Beverley’s Records, “Judge Not,” as it is simply painful to hear the original Wailers—Bob, Bunny Wailer and Peter Tosh—recording “do-overs” in which they just try to sound like popular acts of the day such as the Temptations.
I don’t want to spoil the story for anyone unfamiliar with it (as I largely was), but there are small gems throughout the telling of Marley’s tale, from what life was like when he lived with his mother in Wilmington, Del. (yes, really, and in one shot just how much it looks like Trenchtown. It’s after his return to Jamaica, however, that the politics and beat that guided Marley’s life truly meld, and Macdonald’s movie hits its groove.
And though Marley was an exceptionally strong figure, it’s the people around him that drove him in different directions and the access to them that gives Macdonald’s movie juice. From Island Records founder Chris Blackwell admitting he “pasteurized” the reggae sound by adding keyboards and other elements, to producer Lee “Scratch” Perry fighting on the other side to keep it both pure and adventurous at the same time, the musical access is amazing. On the political side, as Marley plays two free concerts in Jamaica and, unwittingly or otherwise, takes on an almost messianic role for its people, it’s the spectacular footage that puts you in the heady moment.
Macdonald’s movie only starts to drag and his attention to detail finally catches up with him near the end of Marley’s life, but perhaps that’s just a personal opinion. Seeing this giant of a man so frail and gaunt, shorn of his beloved locks, is extremely hard to watch as Macdonald lingers perhaps a bit too long on Marley’s fruitless search for a way to extend his life.
Overall, however, Marley is an equally intimate and grand portrait of reggae’s leading figure, a must-see for fans of the genre and entertaining and enlightening to others unfamiliar with this world. Though the extras are relatively scant – mainly more interviews and a commentary from Macdonald – it’s a complete portrait of a complicated man.