Idolised by millions the world over and one of the most famous faces on earth, how much do you really know about Bob Marley beyond, the basics – that he was from Jamaica, popularised Reggae and liked to smoke a goodly quantity of the happy nettles?
Kevin Macdonald’s documentary shines a light on one of music’s greatest icons but thankfully stops short of deification. Marley’s musical genius and philanthropy is certainly acknowledged but so is his serial adultery (which led to him fathering 11 children by seven different women) and his depressingly antiquated attitude towards women – far less progressive than his liberal political stance might imply.
We follow Marley from his life as a poor farm boy in Jamaican slums of Trench Town – a harsh fatherless existence where he was often victimised for being mixed race – to his rebellious teenage years and eventual success, before his tragic death from cancer at the age of 36. Its structure is a familiar but a winning one – Macdonald mixes archive footage, live concerts and interviews with an impressive array of talking heads that include some of his closest associates.
That Marley is culturally significant is undeniable, so Macdonald wisely shies away from interviews with musicians who cite him as an influence or the usual parade of journo talking heads which would have been redundant. Instead, he concentrates on people that were close to him, including bona fide characters like the red-bearded eccentric Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry and Bunny Wailer – bedecked in finery that makes him look like a cross between Snoop Dogg and Sacha Baron Cohen’s The Dictator.
The major problem is that we’re left with very little information about Marley the individual – there’s a wealth of information about what he did, but despite the in-depth interviews with some of his nearest and dearest – his wife Rita, son Ziggy, daughter Cedella, former Miss World and long time girlfriend Cindy Breakspeare, there’s very little information on who he was.
That’s perhaps inevitable as memories of him are often contradictory (and prone to 30 years’ worth of interpretation) and so it’s hard to get any sense of objective truth or consistency. Even after the credits role, Marley the person remains frustratingly elusive.
However, despite clocking in at over two hours, Marley is always entertaining and there’s a great deal to enjoy from rare archive footage, disarmingly frank and personal interviews, and whole layers of information that most casual fans of his music wouldn’t even have dreamed were there. Highly recommended.