At first glance, I gleaned from an email subject line only that it was a movie and that it was called Marley. I drew a breath, made a face. What, one more treacle bomb from the John Grogan empire of dog-divined bestsellers?
In other words, it didn’t occur to me, at first glance, what a film called Marley might actually be about. I confess this for amends-making, and to take proper cultural stock of what that name ought to mean to us now. How shameful of me to forget that somewhere between the fettered ghost of Scrooge’s partner and the adorably incorrigible labrador retriever, there was also, um, yes, a certain reggae legend.
Apparently, Bob Marley’s life somehow has gone without a definitive motion-picture survey until now, and this documentary from Kevin Macdonald, who also made Touching the Void and The Last King of Scotland, will do fine until one arrives. Those two films together do seem like weird credentials for the task at hand, but maybe the most important requirement is willingness. Reportedly, Martin Scorsese and Jonathan Demme both came and went from this project, which had full support from Marley’s estate; both of those directors have made great movies about musicians before, and either of them might have done something wonderful here. Macdonald’s salvage has a vaguely discernible bronze-medal aspect, but it does Marley’s legacy a great service if only by not taking the form of a trite fictional biopic.
“The Third World’s first pop superstar” is how Rolling Stone founder Jann Wenner described Marley during the latter’s posthumous 1994 induction in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Marley endorses that slogan and elaborates, crawling chronologically through the man’s life history and collecting observations from many who knew him. These vary widely, insight-wise. Son Ziggy and daughter Cedella, two of the 11 children Marley had from seven different relationships, say a lot even without words. Wife Rita dignifiedly maintains perspective on the relationships. One grade-school teacher suggests an ostensible first musical influence: a little ditty about a donkey. Fellow musicians improvise their own off-beat chiming in. Wailer Alvin “Seeco” Patterson, tells us, for instance, “He was different. He just loved music. Music and cricket and football.” Ah.
Of course, Bob himself also is on hand for the occasional archival-footage interview, his own eloquence also hit-and-miss but his presence ever steady. The known history adds up neatly to the glimpsed image: Having grown up in a Jamaican shack, feeling the absence of his white English father, he was shy but motivated. Then, self-elevated by an apparently uncynical sort of musical success, and by his eventual religious devotion to the Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie, Marley made himself into a credible crusader for world peace.
Macdonald answers questions like how it went from just the Wailers to Bob Marley and the Wailers by indirect implication: How could it not? There is the unfakeable charisma with which, among other feats of populism, Marley once brought a pair of feuding Jamaican politicians onstage with him and got them to hold hands. This may not sound like much, but in 1978, Jamaican political feuds were ominously violent. In another episode, Marley himself even took a bullet. Then he got back onstage and showed his scar to the worshipful crowd. Yes, he was more driven than the haze of Rastafarian relaxations might suggest.
Exhaustiveness, too, is conveyed by implication: Marley runs nearly two-and-a-half hours. With that scope, even one unabridged performance might have been nice, although intermittent lucidity seems in keeping with the overall vibe. Compelling even at its most platitudinous, Macdonald’s film has the full texture of appreciation. It does the important thing of keeping a groove going. And it is heartening to hear the often gorgeous music returned to its roots and redeemed from the ironic anti-ghetto of Hacky Sack-infested college quadrangles that sprang up in the years after Marley died too young, from cancer, in 1981.
Unfortunately, it’ll still take more than just this movie to get past mistaking him, at least at first glance, for some beloved lamented pet. Other surveys still are welcome, because this Marley still matters.