Kevin McDonald’s documentary on reggae legend Bob Marley, descriptively entitled Marley, does nothing if not remind us how magnetic a figure the head Wailer really was, on stages both small and large. Much like last year’s sensational doc Senna, the Marley film soars every time its subject is on screen. To be sure, McDonald is going for a full blown biopic, tracing Marley’s birth and early life in the hills of Jamaica to his musical beginnings in Kingston’s infamous Trenchtown and the birth of his band the Wailers, all the way through Marley’s rise to superstardom before his way too young death at the hands of cancer in 1981 at the age of 36.
There are no gimmicks in the construction or pacing of the film, as McDonald gives Marley a straight ahead, chronological, respectful treatment reflecting the esteem with which McDonald and almost everyone who loves music hold Marley. This by the numbers approach comes across as refreshing and actually sort of elevating in a media world that has become increasingly self- consciously ironic and, in many cases, phonily edgy. Bob Marley didn’t need a schtick and McDonald is basically telling us that neither does a documentary on him. For the Marley aficionados and experts, there may not be a ton new or eye opening in this film. There is so much available on Marley’s life in the public domain already. On the other hand, it is so well put together that it will stand nicely as a definitive look at Marley’s life.
The film relies heavily on interviews with several key surviving people from Marley’s life, including Wailers co-founder Bunny Wailer (Livingston), Marley’s widow Rita Marley and Island Records and Marley producer Chris Blackwell. The interviews frame Marley’s life, particularly his early life growing up in Jamaica, dealing with growing up without a father and as a child of mixed race parents, how his early career in music began, how spirituality and Rastafarianism came to define his life and music, as well as how he wasn’t necessarily the most faithful husband or greatest father. To be sure, there are small details that are glossed over too quickly. One that sticks out the most is the diminishing of the role of reggae superstar and Wailer co-founder Peter Tosh in not just Marley’s early career but in the rise and honing of the reggae sound in general. The film treats Tosh as little more than an early co-writer with Marley who just left the Wailers and was gone. In many ways, though, Tosh was the yin to Marley’s yang in the world of reggae and the film lost a chance to explore the Marley-Tosh relationship and dynamic in more depth.
It is in Marley’s role in the birth and explosion of reggae, the role of his Rastafarian religion and spirituality, and his powerful involvements in the political struggles of not just Jamaica, but Africa, and the increasing universality in the messages of his music that the film focuses on the most. The film also talks about Marley’s love of soccer, generosity with friends (and hangers on), how his children saw him, and his reputation as a ladies’ man. McDonald’s research is well done and there are little bits that are excitingly fresh and new, such as Marley’s frustration that his audience in the United States was mostly white and how he planned to deal with it. The informative bits are all keys to the overall effectiveness of the movie. But it is in the archival musical material that the film truly takes off, carried on the absolute magnetism of Marley’s delivery. In many, many cases, reality doesn’t live up to the legend. But in Marley’s case, it absolutely does. His live music could hardly be described as a performance. It was a total immersion, an absolute spiritual journey that he was taking himself and his audience on. And all of that comes through every time Marley is on the screen. Eyes closed, twirling around, bouncing, swaying, pulling the audience along with him, Marley’s live show was less a performance as a delivery of a gift.
One thing that struck me watching Marley and recalling Senna from last year is what the documentary biopic might become in the Youtube and video generation. Particularly when it comes to our musicians, sports stars, artists, etc, everything they do is documented, most of it on video. I think back to, for example, the Ken Burns Baseball films. Burns’ research is always meticulous and well done. But what you basically had was the narrator telling us about those 4,000 home runs Babe Ruth hit and then maybe four seconds of Ruth silently waving at a camera. Those days are gone. Now, if you want to tell me about the legend of, say, Michael Jordan, I can just show you all of his games on video. The video evidence of his greatness is 10,000 times more powerful than what somebody can tell me in words. Having all of this video could make it easier, I imagine, for documentarians in that there is so much more rich material to choose from. But it arguably makes it more difficult for them to control the editorial message they are trying to get across. As great as Marley was as a film, as I mentioned the best parts were when Marley was on screen performing. So after leaving the theater, I went home and looked up “Marley live” on Youtube and there was a ton more material available to me than McDonald could have ever put in his film, most of it riveting. Marley was a very, very well done doc, one I would recommend any Marley or music fan in general go see. The music and the performances are even larger than life on the big screen and well worth seeing that way. But having so much at our fingertips begs the question of how many people really want to spend money seeing something they can mostly see for free.