Bob Marley packed a lot of living into his 36 years. Hit records, international concert success, eleven kids by seven different women, a face stenciled on more t-shirts than Che Guevara, it was as if he knew he didn’t have much time so he got an early start and lived at a sprint, despite the laid back image his music and lifestyle portrayed.
He’s been dead over 30 years, but the founding father of reggae music remains an icon whose fame transcended music just as Marley transcended the odd confluence of geography, religion, patois and poverty that created him.
The who, where and how of Bob Marley shines through in Kevin MacDonald’s thorough (almost overly so) documentary about Marley, a Jamaican who introduced reggae and his religion, Rastafarianism, to the world, a guy for whom the phrase “world music” was pretty much invented.
Macdonald, director of “The Last King of Scotland” and “State of Play,” used his clout to round up everyone from Marley’s first teacher, in rural, tiny St. Anne’s Jamaica, to his producers, colleagues, wife, lovers and children, to paint the most complete portrait of this seminal musician.
Here’s Bunny Livingston of The Wailers dancing out the chucka-chucka beat of reggae, where you play “three beats and imagine the fourth.” Jimmy Cliff relates the many musical influences on Bob and the Jamaican music scene of the 1960s, the years just after the island earned its independence. The literally and figuratively colorful producer Lee “Scratch” Perry is shown, in the studio, conducting through dance, the band’s recordings. Bunny tells how The Wailers were formedand found there name.
“We came from a wailing environment, everybody always bawling.”
And there, in interviews and on stage, bouncing around the microphone in near religious ecstacy, is Marley himself, putting poetry into dance music that first took over Jamaica’s dance halls, and then conquered the world.
Rastafarianism, with its ganga-smoking, dreadlock-wearing mysteriousness, is explained. This is some of the most fascinating footage of “Marley,” learning how Bob, an “outcaste” thanks to the white father he never knew, finding a father figure in the charmismatic Mortimer Planno, a preacher of the “liberationist” Jamaican religion that re-imaged Christianity through Afro-centric eyes.
The red letter dates in Marley’s career, from his first single (“Judge Not”), in 1962 (he was 16) to the “tipping point” concert that made him an international phenomenon, to his hard-won breakthrough in America, are captured.
Friends and colleagues (Chris Blackwell from Island Records among them) remember the political naivete, the assassination attempt, the mania for soccer that injured him and set in motion the disease that killed him. Hints about the sort of “career first” advice he was getting sneak in. We hear, from a daughter and son, what a feckless husband and absentee dad he was.
One big omission in this 2:24 musical biography is Marley explaining his own creative process. There are many interviews, but reporters of the day were caught up in his hair, his history, his religion and his marijuana use and never nailed down much about where the poetry came from. We hear how he worked out melodies, how he incorporated topicality into his lyrics, but not how he wrote the anthemic “One Love,” how he thought up “Stir It Up” or “I Shot the Sheriff.”
Still, “Marley” manages to be something close to a definitive history lesson about a man whose music has endured even as the genre has evolved in the decades after his death. And every now and then, the movie comes close to placing us where the music often did — in the realm of the mystical, with a beat everybody could dance to.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for drug content, thematic elements and some violent images
Cast: Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, Rita Marley, Bunny Livingston, Cindy Breakspeare
Credits: Directed by Kevin Macdonald, a Magnolia release.
Running time: 2:24