Few would argue that Bob Marley is an icon whose legend far exceeds the reaches of his music. Since his death in 1981, the image of the dreadlocked Reggae superstar has become a universal symbol for all sorts of anti-establishment ideology. Whether to the children just trying to survive in a Jamaican shantytown, or to affluent suburban kids experimenting with their first joint, Marley’s anthems has an enigmatic ability to bring folks together, uplift their spirits, and empower them to seek change.
There have been relatively few authorized, and unguarded, biographies of the man over the thirty-two years since his death from cancer, but the DVD release of the biographical documentary Marley makes up for all of that. Initially directed by Martin Scorsese and then Jonathan Demme, the studio finally settled on Kevin Macdonald (The Last King of Scotland, State of Play) to helm the epic biopic that unearths scores of previously-unseen footage of the musical genius (both on and off stage) and interviews dozens of Marley’s closest confidants and family members.
If there is one thing that Marley makes clear about its subject, it is that Bob was a highly driven man whose sense of strength and invincibility made him unwilling to let anything stand in his way; a trait that helped him rise from the slums of his Jamaican childhood, onto led him to international stardom, and ironically aided in his demise. Born the illegitimate child of a mixed-race marriage, Marley and his black mother lived in relative poverty, far removed from the comforts enjoyed by his estranged white father and his father’s family. Due to his mixed heritage, Marley had a difficult time fitting in with either race growing up. Thankfully, this became much less of an issue around 1962 when Marley found his passion in music, and began to play in early Ska bands with folks like the renowned rude boy Desmond Dekker, Rastafarian singer Joe Higgs, reggae icon Peter Tosh, and Bob’s stepbrother, Bunny Wailer.
Bob quickly absorbed himself into the Rastafarian movement, which combined Christian-based theology and spiritual use of cannabis (marijuana) into a movement (Rastafarians like to clarify that this is not a religion) that believed that Africa was the Zion of the bible, and that the then-Emperor of Ethiopia Haile Selassie was the second coming of Christ. As Marley’s international popularity grew, he became the iconic spokesman for the Rastafarian movement, with songs like “So Jah S'eh” and “Jah Live” – Jah being the Rastafarian term for Jesus.
Marley introduces its audience to a veritable who’s-who of Marley’s inner circle; from wife Rita to children Ziggy and Cedella, to celebrated reggae stars like Jimmy Cliff and Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry. Also included are politicians, former business partners, and even a handful of the many women with whom marley openly “collaborated” with over the course of his career, and from which 10 children were fathered outside of his legal relationship with Rita.
The film does a fantastic job intertwining archival footage with current-day interviews, all of which is delivered expertly without the use of a narrator or overdubbing. The cinematic quality is top-shelf stuff, capturing the beauty and warmth of Marley’s beloved Jamaica, and doing a great job of setting up the interview shots to make them equally as compelling to watch as they are to listen to. The audio quality is absolutely incredible, even in the archival concert footage, which are the true highlights of the film.
If there were a few criticisms to be made of the film, the first and foremost would be that the core film could use a far more music. While there is a surprising amount of Marley’s music introduced throughout the film (24 songs), most comes in the form of 10-20 second sound-bites that seem to trail off just as they pick up steam. Granted this is a documentary and not a music video, but the film could have stood to have a handful of long-play music segments. Thankfully the DVD-extras offer a handful of extended song clips, but there could always be more.
One of the more frustrating issues is the lack of English subtitling. I am not sure if UK-native Kevin Macdonald realizes this, but we Americans have a really hard time disseminating thick accents, with the Jamaican “Yardie” accent being one of the most difficult. There are a handful of interviews in Marley that will require a second or third listen in order to fully comprehend – thankfully a DVD allows us to replay scenes, but I do feel bad for the folks who watched the cinematic release on the big screen and did not have the luxury of rewind.
As for the extras, Marley offers its fair share of fan service. From the aforementioned extended music clips, extended interviews, and even a full-length commentary track from Bob’s most recognizable offspring, Ziggy Marley, the gifts just keep coming. I was hoping to find a digital download of the soundtrack, but no dice. The soundtrack is widely available however in a two-disc pack, or on vinyl via 3 LPs.
Macdonald’s Marley does a great service for Bob’s fans, friends, and family by delivering an unrestrained glimpse at the life and times (both the good and the bad) of one of this generations greatest musicians and activists.