Director: Kevin Macdonald
Starring: Documentary featuring Bob Marley, Ziggy Marley, Rita Marley, Cedella Marley, Jimmy Cliff
Distributor: Roadshow Films
Runtime: 144 mins. Reviewed in Jun 2012
| JustWatch |
Rating notes: Mature themes and drug use

One of the points of interest for potential audiences for Marley is that it was directed by Kevin Macdonald. While Macdonald directed the Oscar-winning The Last King of Scotland, he is better known for his powerful documentaries. He won an Oscar for his film of the massacre at the Munich Olympic Games in 1972, One Day in September. Well worth seeing are such films as Touching the Void about climbers in the Andes and his portrait of French Nazi, Klaus Barbie, and how he survived in South America after his condemnation after World War II, My Enemy’s Enemy.

Macdonald has taken Bob Marley as his subject. His film runs almost two and a half hours and incorporates many, very many, of Marley’s songs and performances – a friend said he counted 72 in the final credits.

The initial appeal will be to fans of Marley and of his encouraging the popularity of Reggae well beyond the shores of his native Jamaica, a popularity that has lasted well after his death in 1981 at the age of 36.

No problem in commending the film for its musical content. However, there is far more to respond to in Marley. Other themes are worth following through.

Bob Marley was born in Jamaica in 1945. His mother was West Indian. His father was British, a bureaucrat and an adventurer who played little influence in his son’s life. But, it meant that Marley was sometimes seen and commented on in the light of his lighter heritage. Marley grew up in comparative poverty with his mother in a country village but moved into Kingston in his teen years where he began to learn music and to perform. But, this was a period of unrest in Jamaica and the movement towards independence. Marley’s popularity meant an involvement in the political unrest and violence in the streets and thug shootings that marred life in Jamaica during the 1970s. He was invited to perform in 1978 in Kingston but became a victim of a shooting and the questioning of whether he should be performing. Perform he did and was able to bring the then two leaders of the country on stage and join their hands.

But, it was Marley’s appearance that drew attention to him and his Reggae rhythms. Growing deadlocks, he embraced and promoted Rastafarianism, a religious view of the world that centred on Jesus coming to earth after 2000 years, and coming in the form of the Emperor of Ethiopia, Haile Selassie (who did visit Jamaica to a rapturous welcome). There is quite an amount of explanation of Rasta behaviour (including the smoking of a great deal of marijuana) and beliefs. The film is also a significant contribution to music history, tracing the West Indian African traditions (opening with a reminder of the slave castles in Ghana from which the slaves went to the Americas), the calypso rhythms, the counterpoint rhythms of Reggae, the early recordings by Marley and his band, the interest overseas, concerts in the UK and, eventually, in Europe and the United States. For Marley, the lyrics were also important, poetic but also reflective, with an emphasis on religious values and peace.

The film serves, of course, as a detailed biography, portrait and study of Marley. Interview clips are abundant – and welcome. Testimonies and explanations come from his teachers, his children, his wife (though Marley’s Rasta beliefs and personality did not confine him to one wife, his having eleven children from seven different partners), his colleagues in his band (they predominate and are very helpful in appreciating Marley and his achievements), his producers. Marley himself appears constantly throughout the film but since he is long dead and the interviewees are looking back at the past, his personality comes through clips chosen by the film-makers rather than directly.

Marley was tenacious and was unstinting in his playing to his audiences. This becomes a sad experience for him and friends as his cancer is diagnosed, attempts to deal with the cancer in Germany alleviate only for a while, and he dies at the age of 36.

Kevin Macdonald has added another telling documentary to his CV and most audiences will find a great deal to interest and entertain whether they are approaching via biography, politics or, as most will, via the music.

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