A long film detailing a tragically short life, on paper, Kevin Macdonald‘s Bob Marley documentary “Marley” has more than enough of a pedigree to justify its 2 1/2 hour running time. After all, it’s a biopic of one of the most influential and evergreen musical pioneers of all time being brought to us by the respected documentarian behind the thrilling “Touching the Void” and the Oscar-winning “One Day In September.” But the truth is that film’s exhaustive approach at some point becomes simply exhausting, with its sporadic moments of true inspiration, almost all directly connected with the music or Bob’s early life, serving mostly to remind of how by-the-numbers the rest of the movie is. It purports to bring us the man behind the myth, but 150 minutes later, the flesh-and-blood Marley remains frustratingly out of reach, and the myth is still reverently intact.
Of course Marley, of all musicians, deserves this reverence. It isn’t often that the evolution of an entirely new musical genre has been so identified with and defined by one man, spearheading a new sound that came from the grass roots up. Marley feels like the father, son and holy spirit of reggae manifest in one man, and perhaps therein lies part of the problem. To criticize Marley, to offer opinions even mildly counter to the accepted mythos, almost equates to blasphemy, but without it, we are left with a film that at great length, reinforces the orthodox version of the Bob Marley legend, to the detriment of the portrait of the real human being.
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It’s hard to point to any one person or directorial choice that is solely responsible for this lack of subjectivity, though the good intentions on display are undeniable. But while Macdonald has marshalled a pretty definitive line-up of talking heads, spanning generations and branches of the Marley family, Wailers, friends, lovers, and colleagues, it’s almost as if every one of them individually makes a choice at some point to soften the edge of a bad call, or to gloss over a hurt caused by callousness or selfishness, in the interests of Marley’s legacy rather than the truth of his life. Rita Marley, the wife Bob cheated on repeatedly is a good case in point. In life, she swallowed her pain and frustration and continued to act as Bob’s helper, backing singer and “guardian angel,” she tells us, with her beatific smile. She refuses to dwell on how hurtful his actions may have been, or what kind of flaw in Marley’s character his relationships with women might point to (over the years he fathered eleven children from seven different relationships). And even his other lovers are mild in their reproaches. Cindy Brakespeare, the Jamaican Miss World with whom Marley had a long-standing affair, recalls how women (who were, among other things, expected to wear dresses and behave modestly) were not really sought for their opinions, and when they offered them, they were ignored by the men who made the decisions. And yes, this was the ’70s and feminism had not yet made the inroads it subsequently would, but this is still a little jarring to our perception of Marley as the patron saint of all things equal, enfranchised, progressive and respectful of human dignity. That his behaviour here is mentioned with a rueful “that’s just the way he was” smile, and then we move on again, is a testament to how very lovable and forgivable a man he clearly was, but also to how the past can become whitewashed, out of nothing more malicious than love, forgiveness and kindness.
But while the cumulative effect of all these admittedly innocuous compromises is to soft focus the bigger picture a little, to smear vaseline on the edge of those lenses (even moments of dissent or bitterness, of which there are a few, mainly from ex-band members, are rarely directed against Bob himself), there are still scenes and sequences in the film which transcend this approach. Indeed the whole first third of the film which details Bob’s childhood and tracks him right up to the birth of the reggae sound, is pretty terrific. This is partly due to the fact that this is the least-known part of his life anyway, and partly because, well, we’re practically talking about a superhero discovering his powers, and who doesn’t love an origin story? So we get his first teacher recalling the song about a donkey that he loved, and his cousin describing how they made musical instruments, drums, banjos, rattles out of whatever was at hand. We follow his move at a young age from the countryside to Trenchtown in Kingston, the shanty town that would make an appearance in some of his most famous songs. And, most thrillingly, we track his growing musical development, the formation (and naming) of The Wailers, their early dalliances with U.S. rock’n’roll (including a cover of “Teenager in Love”) before a perfect storm of events, possibly accidental, possibly predestined, brought the rhythms and beats of reggae Wailing into the world.
These sections see Macdonald in top form, building the story of rock’s metamorphosis into ska, and ska’s into reggae with simplicity and clarity. And time and again, the selection of a particularly electrifying piece of live footage, the matching of song to event, or the explanation of the story behind a lyric lifts the movie entirely, from the first concerts to an inspired end credit sequence of people around the world, busking, singsonging, dancing to and generally uniting under his music. In fact, the recontextualising of some familiar songs works so well that even something as overplayed as “Stir It Up” or “No Woman, No Cry” can raise goosebumps all over again with its opening bars. This really is no mean feat: so many of these songs are so immense and universal as to almost feel like they’re beyond the pale, but Macdonald deserves full credit for finding a way to present them to us anew.
Shame then, that the film is not about solely about the music, but also about the man, because the sections unanchored by a strong musical narrative devolve into episodic “and then he went here and did this” sequences. It all adds up to a curiously undramatic experience. Yet this was a man who played a free concert immediately after being attacked by a politically-motivated gunman, a man whose first, historic trip to Africa was to play at the birthday party of a dictator whose 16 year-old daughter he fancied, a man who revolutionized music, shattered barriers, sold as many t-shirts as Che Guevara and managed to maintain friendships on all sides of the divide during some of the most politically turbulent years in Jamaican history: his was not a life that lacked contradiction and drama. But something in the presentation of these events simply fails to thrill, and, coupled with the length, really contributes to a certain pedestrian quality to large portions of the documentary.
From the prologue, set in Ghana in a notorious holding area for the slaves who were shipped by the thousands, that sets up a premise that is never subsequently returned to with any conviction, through to Rastafarianism, so central to Bob Marley’s faith and lifestyle (but given short, somewhat dismissive shrift) to the cursory treatment of his behaviour as a father and a family man: in general, many of the more interesting and potentially illuminating avenues of enquiry are only glimpsed from the highway and never explored.
It’s not that we were hoping for some salacious expose of the TMZ-style REAL Bob Marley (we are as convinced about him ultimately being a force for good as we ever were) but Macdonald’s instincts for drama seemed dulled here by reverence. “Marley” is by no means a bad film, but we expected greater and all we really got was more. It presents a comprehensive portrait of the whens and wheres of Bob Marley’s life but the hows, and crucially, the whys remain largely elusive. [B-]