At last there exists an authoritative, comprehensive, and detailed study of the life of Bob Marley – the groundbreaking reggae musician who remains the voice of Jamaica and an international icon despite his death 31 years ago. That’s no small accomplishment considering the relative dearth of archival material that exists (especially of Marley’s pre-fame life) and the comparative excess of vested interests that want a say in shaping the musician’s legacy. Macdonald’s documentary succeeds by charting a straightforward course from the haziness that surrounds Marley’s mixed-race birth in the island’s interior to his years in Kingston’s Trench Town where he started a band with Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer (whose recollections prove invaluable to the film), from the birth of reggae to the worldwide adulation bestowed on Bob Marley & the Wailers in the Seventies, and from Marley’s Rastafari faith and the way it shaped his music to the musician’s anthemic importance as a voice of peace, freedom, and resistance.
Most striking is Macdonald’s deft use of music and Marley’s lyrics (many of them obscure) to illustrate the film’s points. So thoughtful is this counterpoint that it almost makes up for Macdonald never showing any one song in a complete performance. This approach may cause reggae newcomers to look outside this film for more background info, but Marley is essential viewing for anyone wanting a fuller understanding of popular music in the latter half of the 20th century. Macdonald talks with everyone, many of whom have never been questioned about their memories of Marley. The documentary’s most emotional moment curiously comes during a segment during which Macdonald breaks the fourth-wall convention of filmmaking and plays a particular song for a couple of Marley’s white relatives while trolling for a response.
While I firmly believe it’s unfair to criticize a movie for what it is not, for what it never even attempted to be, I nevertheless found myself aching at the end of Marley to see the movie Jonathan Demme might have created from Marley’s life. The noted filmmaker was the original director attached to this project before disagreements with the producers led to his replacement by Macdonald. Without knowing any of the details, one might presume that Demme – who is as esteemed for the originality of the music documentaries he has made with such figures as the Talking Heads and Neil Young as he is for his Oscar win for The Silence of the Lambs – proffered an approach that hewed less to the strictly chronological, biographical structure used by Macdonald. (The fact that Demme made it to the editing stage with his vision supports my speculation.) However, a lot of cooks were involved in the production of Marley – by that I mean intimately involved producers such as Marley’s family, whose members have always held a close rein on the musician’s legacy, and opinionated financiers such as Stephen Bing and Island Records founder and Marley mentor Chris Blackwell. I’m confident everyone wanted to make the best movie possible, and in this they have largely succeeded. Marley finally gives the world an authoritative, nonhagiographic survey of Marley’s life. Demme’s version, I suspect, might have placed greater focus on the meaning of and international impact of that life – emphasizing the poetry of Marley’s language, the rhythms that prove irresistible to the human body, and the spirituality of the music that transcends its devotionally Rastafarian roots. It’s not that these things can’t be gleaned from Macdonald’s doc; it’s all there, but it’s incorporated into the story’s chapters rather than proclaimed as headlines. If we are to wail for what might have been, let it be for Bob Marley’s short life that was cut down by cancer at the age of 36.
See "Stir It Up," April 20, for an interview with the director.