Film, TV and the Arts

Film, TV and the Arts

Thursday, 10 May 2012

Review: Marley

Kevin Macdonald's detailed documentary provides an insight into the enigmatic reggae icon

Bob Marley’s music is some of the most ubiquitous and universally popular ever written. A mainstay of teenage iTunes collections, Marley’s reggae seems destined to remain widely listened to and adored. However, it is certainly the case that Marley the man is not so well known. The image emblazoned on t-shirts and posters worldwide, is the face of an enigmatic man.

Kevin Macdonald’s epic documentary, Marley, attempts to tell the story of this man, drawing on the wealth of material which the Marley estate has in its possession, new interviews with many of Marley’s relations, friends and closest associates, and, of course the music.

This film would not have been possible without the co-operation of the Marley estate, as the music rights would have been extortionate. However, with such close involvement from the family (Marley’s son Ziggy is an executive producer), there were concerns that this would turn into pure hagiography.

Well, it seems to have avoided that trap. A major feature of the documentary is a focus on Marley’s infidelity, and it even features a clip of Marley denying that he is married, so this is not an unflinchingly glowing view of the man. However, the story it tells is of a very impressive individual, whose musical talent was matched by his concern for the wider community, not just in his native Jamaica, but internationally.

A simple fact about Marley, though, is that there isn’t as much known about him as one might imagine, and, after his death from cancer in 1981, aged only 36, he is unable to speak for himself here. Faced with this central void in his film, Macdonald produces a history of Marley, charting his life from a childhood defined by his absentee father and “half-caste” status, all the way through his gradual rise to national and then international stardom and emergence as an immensely potent political figure, ending with his tragically premature death.

The story is fascinating, and it is told in exactly detail by Macdonald, who includes discussions on matters like the technical definitions of ska and reggae and the origins of Rastafarianism. The result of this is a film which, at almost two and a half hours, is too long but which has a great air of authority about it.

There are plenty of amusing and astonishing moments. A peace concert in Jamaica headlined by a Marley returning from exile is as moving now as it was then, and the emphasis on Marley’s children’s reactions to the death of their father, and their sense of never being able to have their father, as he seemed to belong to everybody, is poignant and painful.

However, the scenes of thousands of people lining the streets of Kingston for Marley’s funeral highlights what comes across in the whole of the film. This man had an incredible effect on people. The affection and admiration that his family, friends and peers had for him is clear, and it is also clear that the liberationist and loving message of his music was genuine, and it is reflected in those that knew him.

Yet, what one sees in the interviews and in the footage is an icon reflected. The unfortunate lack of Marley the man remains, as does the enigma. Many mysteries are left and others are formed through this. However, the awesome and beneficial effect that this one man had on so many people is the abiding memory of this film. Maybe that is the ultimate point about the man. He resonates today, the eve of the 31st anniversary of his death, and has become much more than the individual he was.

Che Guevara’s visage, like Marley’s, is emblazoned on merchandise around the world. However, whilst his has unironically been stripped of all meaning, Marley’s image has retained its meaning. Though it would be fascinating if we could hear more of the enigmatic reggae star, it is perhaps better that he remains this astonishing, transcendent individual.

Rating: A-

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