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By Alex Lynchehaun
One man born into deepest poverty in rural Jamaica, the other an alumnus of the prestigious Glenalmond college and grandson of an Oscar winner and BAFTA fellow. It sounds an unlikely pairing, but it would be hard to envisage a more comprehensive account of Bob Marley’s life than Kevin MacDonald’s Marley.
Produced with the backing of the Marley family, the film covers Bob’s life and career, featuring interviews with Marley’s wife, children, girlfriends, collaborators and even some key figures from Jamaica’s political conflicts of the 70s. It is the vast range of interviewees that allows for such a detailed look at every aspect of the reggae legend, and his life provides enough material for even the lengthiest of documentaries.
That’s not to say MacDonald’s feature always rushes by; there are times when you really feel the length of the piece, a not inconsiderable 145 minutes. Nonetheless, the occasional moment of tedium is a fair price for exploring the life and work of one the 20th century’s most iconic figures. Marley’s image sits alongside Che Guevara’s in the pantheon, and the man himself proves a fascinating topic.
The singer’s myth is as a pothead, womaniser and charismatic performer. Each aspect of this is partly true, but things are not quite so simple; the documentary seeks to explain why Marley became the man he did, and what sort of man that was. It looks for answers and, largely, finds them. Robert Marley was born into deep rural poverty, disowned by his father’s white family and, given his mixed race, an outcast in Jamaica. His escape came through music and the rastafari faith, perhaps the only two constants in his adult life. It was his faith that led him to marijuana, his fame and looks that brought women and his sheer obsession with and love of reggae that made Bob Marley and the Wailers one of the greatest bands of all time.
Yet despite all the positives, the tone is not entirely congratulatory. Unlike last year’s Senna, a more exciting but less complete study, Marley’s faults are pored over as well. He mingled with some very questionable people while the way he treated his children left much to be desired. Indeed it is from his family, as well as the collaborators he broke with, that we get some of the most damning critiques of Marley’s behaviour.
Alongside a close exploration of the man is a wealth of archive footage. While his own interviews reveal very little, the concert footage is uniformly brilliant. The highlight is Marley’s triumphant Kingston peace concert of 1978, where he briefly brought together the leaders of Jamaica’s two warring parties. These clips are complemented by some of Bob in his normal life, most of which involve him playing football. It almost goes without saying that the soundtrack is sensational, with gems such as Marley’s first single, written aged sixteen, set alongside all of the classic Wailers tracks.
As a comprehensive account of the great musician’s life and tragic early death, Marley is first class. There’s no flashy editing or manufactured drama, instead we are built a complete picture of one man’s strengths and faults. For any Bob Marley fan this ought to be essential viewing. Even for those who aren’t, it still comes highly recommended.