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At 2.5 Hours, Does Kevin MacDonald's Doc 'Marley' Add Really Anything New to the Rastafarian's Tale?

Photo of Eric Kohn By Eric Kohn | Indiewire February 12, 2012 at 8:12AM

The best sequence in "Marley," Kevin Macdonald's sprawling, two-and-a-half-hour chronicle of Bob Marley's legacy, arrives at the very end. While the credits roll, Macdonald shows Marley fans around the world singing his greatest hits. The diverse cultures and appearances, united by Marley's lyrics and good vibes, speak to the singer's global effect--as well as its lasting appeal today.
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A scene from Kevin Macdonald's "Marley."
A scene from Kevin Macdonald's "Marley."

The best sequence in "Marley," Kevin Macdonald's sprawling, two-and-a-half-hour chronicle of Bob Marley's legacy, arrives at the very end. While the credits roll, Macdonald shows Marley fans around the world singing his greatest hits. The diverse cultures and appearances, united by Marley's lyrics and good vibes, speak to the singer's global effect--as well as its lasting appeal today.

It's enough to make the fairly conventional overview of his career preceding the finale look comparatively tame. Despite its breadth, "Marley" delivers little more than a well-crafted overview sure to please diehard fans while leaving others unmoved.

However, Macdonald's approach gives a definitive feel to "Marley," from its earliest moments tracking the singer from his impoverished Jamaican roots through the apex of his stardom and final days of a losing battle with cancer. Macdonald's massive list of talking heads includes close relatives, childhood friends, former bandmates and producers, each of whom contributes to the movie's fluid structure. It's easy to get swept up in the Marley fever when virtually every subject has something overly kind and even worshipful to say about Marley's legacy.

However, this also creates a certain padding around the titular figure, not unlike the issue plaguing Martin Scorsese's equally detailed "George Harrison: Living in the Material World" last year: The "authorized" stature challenges the movie's authority over the topic. Rather than deconstruct the legend, Macdonald accepts it unquestioned, if only because the interviewees control the tenor of the narrative. Instead of peeking behind the curtain, Macdonald marvels at its surface.

And so from Marley's earliest recording at the age of 16, the documentary presents a uniformly warm perspective on the music and its ability to transcend the socio-political boundaries of Marley's upbringing. Although Macdonald received access to the family's archives, Marley himself rarely appears in old interviews, mainly surfacing in still photography and on the soundtrack. Even through a biographical lens, he's more myth than man.   

Of course, for the millions of people still inspired by the music, that's probably enough. "Marley" shows how the musician escaped his lower class roots by finding an outlet in his guitar, then took his time rising up to international fame. Mcdonald occasionally rests on the tamer periods of Marley's life, such as the time he spent with his mother in Wilmington, Delaware, driving a forklift. In case you were wondering: Yes, he was a real person.

A few welcome deviations from the main story explore the evolution of ska and its transition into reggae, but the movie contains no footage of behind-the-scenes studio sessions or any other insight into the specifics of Marley's recording practice. As a result, the sheer technique behind Marley's iconic melodies remain largely in the shadows while everyone celebrates the result.

Some of Mcdonald's passionate subjects hint at the complexities of Marley's fame bearing down on him--passing references to his countless children with different mothers and the stress of touring point to deeper possibilities--but primarily "Marley" operates in a mode of implicit reverence. When the narrative delves into his political influence, documenting his triumphant return to Kingston for the One Love Peace Concert in 1978 to help resolve tensions between opposing political parties, Mcdonald's subjects talk in generalities. There's no room for analysis when the man's predetermined overwhelming cultural value dominates.

This is particularly evident during the climactic scenes that recall the singer's death. While Macdonald includes spectacular footage of Marley's coffin passing through his hometown as thousands of fans look on, the ripple effect of his abrupt demise goes unmentioned; instead, anecdotes from his weary end days, including one from a nurse, simply confirm that even as a sick man Marley was still a pleasant figure. That's the issue with "Marley" throughout: Even as a tame, unadventurous portrait, it still maintains the breezy enthusiasm of the music.

Criticwire grade: B-

HOW WILL IT PLAY? Magnolia picked up "Marley" for U.S. distribution and plans to release it on 4/20, appropriately enough, which should give it a nice boost in limited release and on VOD.

Editor's note: A version of this review originally ran in February at the Berlin International Film Festival.

This article is related to: Marley, Berlin International Film Festival, South By Southwest Film Conference and Festival (SXSW), Kevin Macdonald