Kevin Macdonald’s epic documentary does right by the influential life and career of reggae icon Bob Marley. While it’s largely unflashy, meat-and-potatoes filmmaking, Macdonald expertly gives us everything we want to know, enough anecdotes we didn’t know and enough head-bobbing music to satisfy everything we wanted from a comprehensive Bob Marley documentary.
Marley (2012) dir. Kevin Macdonald
By Alan Bacchus
As only a casual fan of Marley, I was surprised to know the lineage of the man. He was the son of a working class black mother and a wealthy white landowner, thus a ‘half-caste’ child dismissed by his father and bearing all the identification problems of being neither ‘black’ nor ‘white.’ Macdonald cleverly makes this Marley’s emotional throughline, including his childhood pains, which helped contribute to the monumental artistic and business successes of Bob Marley.
Macdonald takes his time tracing the kind of upbringing Marley saw as a child. His father, Captain Noval Sinclair Marley, who married Bob’s 18-year-old mother, is portrayed as the typical aristocratic plantation owner. At 60 years of age he impregnated a young woman but performed none of the assumed paternal duties.
Other formative events in Marley's youth include his ska influences in the early '60s and the creation of the Wailers in 1962 at age 17, which also then included a young Peter Tosh. Though he and his bandmates lived in near poverty, we get the sense that music was so ingrained in their culture that it didn’t take much money to convince people of their talent.
Marley’s introduction to Rastafarianism offers an informative film within a film. I admit, other than the dreadlock and ganja rituals, I knew little about the religion. We learn about the devotion to and sacredness of one’s body, as well as the curiously random deification of Ethiopian Emperor Haile Salassie as its God incarnate.
As time moves along and Marley's career grows, Macdonald constructs chapters of sorts covering the key aspects of his life and personality: his ‘womanizing’ persona, the burgeoning gang warfare in Jamaica, his deliberate political neutrality, his competitive nature and business savvy, which contrast greatly to the laid back culture of Rastafarianism and his assumed role as an international Jamaican ambassador. All of this supports Macdonald’s overarching theme of Marley’s internal struggles for peace, love and racial harmony within his community.
And we all know there’s an impending tragedy at the end of this story, although it's never referenced until Marley’s cancer is revealed to him, subliminally we can feel this emotional weight throughout the entire film. The final scenes that document the quick change from Marley on top of the world as a music superstar and father figure to millions of fans and idolizers, to the sudden realization that his body was riddled with cancer and at the short end of his life is devastating.
I’m convinced the British have a sixth sense for documentary technique. Arguably the best documentarians are British, as they're able to realize real-life subject matter with cinematic flare and gravitas better than anyone in the world. And Kevin Macdonald (Touching the Void, One Day in September), at the top of this class, dutifully does justice to this great artist and important cultural story.
Marley is available on DVD and Blu-ray from Eone Home Entertainment in Canada.