Review: MARLEY Hits All the Right Notes

Jason Gorber, Featured Critic
The last few months has seen an explosion of exceptional music documentaries. From Under African Skies to Beware of Mr. Baker, films of breadth and clarity of vision have transcended their subject matters, demonstrating unequivocaly that a music documentary need not be a mere exercise in listing the accomplishments of a given artist and throwing in a few performance, and instead are films capable of delving into genuine issues of moral, philosophical and aesthetic concern.

Kevin McDonald's take on the life of Bob Marley is done with the blessing of the late singer's family and keepers of his legacy - the film is produced by Ziggy Marley, the legend's son, and Island Records founder Chris Blackwell. I had initial fears that the direct involvement of those so close to the man might result in the type of sycophantic hagiography that occasionally plagues films of this nature. Even best intentioned docs, like the otherwise sensational and epic Anthology doc commissioned by the surviving Beatles, can suffer from artists trying to overly manage in part their legacy. Marley, thankfully, avoids this pitfall for the most part. With this film we're treated to a nuanced, insightful look at Bob's life, loves, career and misfortunes, a story told with a well balanced, essentially neutral take on his extraordinary rise to mythic status.

It may be no coincidence that this is another subject that has already been tackled by the esteemed Classic Albums series. In that early doc produced by Nick de Grunwald and co. about the making of Catch a Fire, similar participants were drafted to delve into depth about the intriguing story about the making of this seminal record. Macdonald's film, in contrast, tries in its running time to take the viewer on a more epic journey, from the hills of rural Jamaica right through the meteoric career of Marley and his fellow Wailers. Naturally, certain details are glossed over, and I can only hope that the eventual home media release will include more esoteric and detailed moments that are dropped in favour of an accessible presentation.

In just under two and a half hours, Macdonald provides an overview not just of the singer's life, but ties Marley's story to the sordid political history of Jamaica in the 60s and 70s, the rise of Rastafarianism and in turn the embrace worldwide of Reggae music and culture, and the complicated relationship Bob held with both his family and his musical compatriots. Contemporary interviews with most of the surviving key players makes the story even more relevant, with the inclusion of Scratch Perry and Bunny Wailer particularly noteworthy.

The many sides of the man are shown in a series of interviews with his surviving friends and family. Marley's daughter comes across as particularly strident, refusing to sugar coat the anguish she felt for both herself and her mother Rita while her father paraded his unfaithful character. Rita, meanwhile, has never been more open or engaging, her ambivalent take on Bob's proclivities comes across as both candid and touching. We meet others who may have been marginalized in the normal take on Marley's story, and they are given chance to include their stories as part of the larger whole.

Bob himself shows up in a number of vintage interviews, and they're used effectively to comment at certain points throughout the film on a given subject matter. Macdonald is wise to use subtitles at moments where the patois is especially thick, a welcome addition for some of the more thickly presented of idiomatic phrasings. Jamaican English is a beautiful, musical thing to hear, but occasionally for outsiders assistance is a welcome relief when straining for comprehension.

The interviews do much to flesh out the man as more than simply a figurehead musician, but they also help account for some of the decisions he undertook musically. On the front of exploring the range of Marley's musical career, the film lives up to its ambitions quite well. We travel from the rocksteady beat of early Ska, right through to the original recordings at Studio One, on to London and Island studios, and finally up to such monster achievements as the "Exodus" recordings. Again, hours could be spent only on this particular thread of the story, and many details are glossed over. On the whole, however, the musical elements, and the way Macdonald ties them to the biographical episodes, crafts a thoroughly engaging look at the man.

The collection of archive footage is mighty impressive, from early photographs to clips of shows performed in southern Africa. The newly shot talking-head interviews are mixed with some wonderfully cinematic helicopter shots, really giving a sense of the land that helped shape Marley's music. Macdonald starts the film in what seems as first to be a heavy handed way, filming the "door of no return" in Ghana where untold numbers Africans were led West, enslaved and forced to work on the other side of the globe. The point is not so subtle, but  when we see a descendent of slaves returning to the continent of some of his ancestors, a triumphant "return" by a powerful figure who was able to cross race, gender, political and religious divides, it's easy to accept the spirit exhibited of this introductory moment.

It must be again emphasized that Macdonald's film doesn't make Marley out to be more than a man, the messianic allusions shared by some are quickly undercut by those that knew him best. Even the troubling events of Marley's fight with cancer, coupled with his refusal to seek treatment in a timely manner and subsequent failed attempts to strive for alternative solutions, makes him come across as far from some unattainable ideal. Happily, these humanizing moments on the whole come across as facets of the greater story, counterbalancing clips of both musical and theatrical ecstasy elicited by =witnessing Bob on stage, whipping his dreads to the drop beat set by the remarkable musicians he surrounded himself with.

There are some wonderfully cinematic flourishes as well - a touchstone shot occurs late in the film, where a crane-up from archive footage shot in Zimbabwe is matchcut to contemporary footage floating over the Blue Mountains of central Jamaica that have been sprinkled throughout the film. For films like this that usually have dreary settings with locked down cameras, it's a part of the film where the craft of Macdonald and his team is allowed to shine, while equally providing appropriate scope for a story of this nature.

As historical documentation, it won't be surprising that Marley opens more doors than it shuts. Still, it effectively paves the way for those of later generations that know him only as the singer of a few hits and tourist jingles to get a real sense of the complexity of the man and the times he lived in. While the film is generous in both reach and running time, it merely scratches the surface on the musical accomplishments of this giant of the last century. For those unfamiliar with any of these stories, this provides a perfect primer into the man and his music. For those more versed in the historical narrative, then the exceptional archive material and small additions to the general story will be more than enough to please even the most ardent fan.

Macdonald's film manages quite well to serve its many audiences, doing so without succumbing to faults that so easily could have plagued the film. Well crafted, with a soundtrack that's drawn from the astounding career of its subject, Marley joins the pantheon of top-notch music films.
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