Film review: Marley (15)

Concentrating on the man more than his music, this authorised and comprehensive biopic gets to the root of the reggae legend, finds Alistair Harkness

Kevin Macdonald makes a triumphant and welcome return to feature documentary filmmaking with Marley, an appropriately laid-back but detailed and absorbing exploration of Bob Marley that cuts through the stoned student pontificating that has reduced the reggae legend to a mystical, meaningless icon, in order to make a clear-headed and insightful case for his cultural importance in the 20th century.

Like last year’s magnificent Senna (which Macdonald also produced), it’s a film that requires no great love or knowledge of its subject, just a willingness to appreciate why some people are able to distinguish themselves on the world stage and have an impact that goes far beyond their immediate area of expertise.

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Of course, Marley is hardly an obscure figure in need of rediscovery, but his story hasn’t been as exhaustively pored over as his contemporaries in the pop, rock and punk arenas. That ensures a degree of freshness, but what also distinguishes Marley is how little he seems to conforms to artistic stereotypes – although perhaps that’s just down to the way Macdonald has skilfully presented the details of his life. For while Marley (who died from cancer in 1981, aged 36) was born poor; achieved huge success; had artistic differences with his band (the Wailers); took copious amounts of drugs; got caught up – sometimes naïvely – in politics; and preached a doctrine of spirituality, peace, love and understanding while sleeping with an enormous number of women and neglecting his family, at no point does the film slip into hagiography.

Which isn’t to say Macdonald has come up with a radical new way of making a documentary (Marley is certainly not as innovative as Touching the Void or his Oscar-winning One Day in September). Made with the approval of the Marley family, it’s told in straightforward, linear fashion using a mix of talking head interviews, archival footage, context-setting news reports, rare photographs and lots of musical performances.

Nevertheless, just as original Wailer Neville “Bunny” Livingston explains in the film how a subtle change in the strumming rhythm of a guitarist transformed ska music into reggae, the stresses Macdonald puts on the narrative makes the film stand out as a more engaging and humanistic piece of work, one that ensures Marley remains pleasingly enigmatic as an artist but more accessible as a man.

His choice of interviewees plays a large part in this. There are no multimillionaire musicians waxing lyrical about his brilliance (mercifully we’re spared the likes of Eric Clapton talking about I Shot the Sheriff). Instead we get family members, neighbours, friends, girlfriends, band members and producers (including Lee “Scratch” Perry), and the head of Island records, Chris Blackwell, offering personal, unpolished and sometimes conflicting accounts of Marley at various stages of his life.

With no film footage of Marley available before 1973 (by which point he’d already been a recording artist in Jamaica for over a decade), Macdonald’s skillful handling of these interviews – his technique is gentle but probing – offers perhaps the most valuable contribution to the Marley story as they outline how being the neglected mixed-race son of an elderly white English plantation foreman fuelled his outsider status and his determination to lift himself out of poverty with his music. Time and again the film circles back to ideas about colonialism and how being a product of it came to inspire Marley’s world view, especially as he later wrestled with being political symbol of unity in Jamaica and Africa yet looked out onto a sea of white faces whenever he played concerts across Europe or America.

The film also grapples with Marley’s religious convictions and illuminates the significance of Rastafarianism in a respectful way that helps overturn the spliff-smoking dreadlocked caricatures. For all the positives, however, it’s not an airbrushed history by any means, and Macdonald doesn’t shy away from tackling Marley’s womanising head-on. Moving interviews with his widow Rita, his long-term girlfriend Cindy Breakspeare (a former Miss World), various other lovers and babymamas, and his daughter Cedella Marley (who heartbreakingly recounts how, even on his deathbed, she couldn’t get time alone with her father) make it clear that while Bob loved women he wasn’t loyal to them. He certainly didn’t involve them in the major decisions of his life, something that various interviewees imply may have led to his untimely death when a suspected melanoma was mistreated and left unchecked by Marley and his multiple hangers-on.

What’s remarkable, though, is how little bitterness there is when discussing him and Macdonald takes that on board, weaving the interviews together in a way that gradually illuminates the meanings of many of Marley’s most famous songs without the need to stop and say where One Love or Redemption Song or Get Up Stand Up came from. In the end, it’s just good, comprehensive storytelling, a film that justifies the legend rather than hypes it.

Marley (15)

Directed by: Kevin Macdonald

Ratuing: ****