LITTLE ROCK It seems impossible that it has been more than 30 years since the death of Bob Marley, who is probably better known today as a kind of secular saint of marijuana or perhaps the namesake of a dog in an Owen Wilson movie than as the revolutionary Rastafarian demi-god some remember from the 1970s.
(I have a very clear high school memory of discussing Eric Clapton’s cover of Marley’s “I Shot the Sheriff” with a friend, who thought I was dissing his favorite guitar player when he misheard “reggae” for “raggedy.” “You wish you could play raggedy guitar like that,” he spat back.)
Anyway, Kevin MacDonald - who first made his mark with the documentary Touching the Void before moving on to narrative features such as The Last King of Scotland and State of Play - provides us with a programmatic educational experience with this loving but steadfastly, if overlong, straightforward movie about the life and times of this Third World superstar.
The film seems best suited to two classes of moviegoers - dedicated fans of the singer and those hungry to learn all they can about the artist. This is a comprehensive film, a kind of moving Wikipedia article, made - somewhat - with the cooperation of the Marley family, and it proceeds in strict chronological order, painstakingly ticking off each of Marley’s 36 years on earth.
It starts out beautifully, in West Africa, on the Gold Coast of Ghana from whence millions of slaves were shipped off to the New World. Then we see some exquisite visuals of the hills of Jamaica, where Marley was born and raised. He was not a product of the Kingston “Trench Town,” but a comparatively worse off country boy who grew up in a shack in the remote village of Nine Mile without running water or electricity. He was further disadvantaged by the absence of his father - a white Jamaican who was 65 when Bob was born. (Bob’s mother was 16.)
Marley completists will probably be aware that Marley spent several dues-paying years after he left school at 14, witnessing and participating in the invention of reggae (a hybrid form of ska and rock steady heavily influenced by American pop and soul) under the tutelage of Clement “Sir Coxsone” Dodd. He recorded his first singles in 1962, and, as a young married man, lived for a while in Delaware (working for DuPont and on the Chrysler assembly line) then spent a stretch in London where impresario Chris Blackwell took him under his wing.
It emerges that Marley was less political than we thought, considering how often political figures sought audiences with him, and that he was the target of a 1976 assassination attempt. The high point of his diplomatic career was the 1978 One Love Peace concert in Kingston, where he joined hands with socialist Jamaican Prime Minister Michael Manley and his bitter Labour Party rival - and successor - Edward Seaga.
While MacDonald has clearly made a movie for Marley’s fans, it never quite tips over into hagiography , and Marley’s problematic personal life - he had 11 children by seven women - is explored via interviews with his Cuban-born wife Rita and daughter Cedella, who apparently still has some Daddy issues.
While Marley remains essentially mysterious, MacDonald has succeeded in supplying context to the icon’s life and legend. Suffused with music and featuring a tantalizing amount of archival concert footage - we never see a complete performance - Marley is likely as close as we’ll ever come to a definitive film biography of this gnomic figure.
: Documentary, with archival footage of Bob Marley, Cedella Marley, Ziggy Marley, Neville “Bunny” Livingston, Rita Marley
: Kevin MacDonald
: 144 minutes
MovieStyle, Pages 37 on 05/04/2012
Print Headline: Marley