The late great Bob Marleys music has been in the air for so long that it takes some effort to ponder a time when it didnt exist. But long before reggae became stoner wallpaper for hacky sack enthusiasts, he was just another musician trying to be heard even if his hardscrabble circumstances were more dire than most.
Marley, director Kevin MacDonalds epic and fascinating documentary about the reggae king, manages the remarkable feat of covering all the bases from large to small. Its fittingly grand, giving a scale of just how massive a figure Marley was and is; he was an icon who could inspire cease-fires because both sides worshipped him, with an appeal spanning cultures, continents and now time. Only Muhammad Ali and Michael Jackson rival him as 20th-century black popular cultures greatest figure.
At the same time, Marley is chock-full of details that make his story palpable. Youll get something from this film no matter how much or how little you think you already know about the man.
Its all the more remarkable how well Marley turned out, given that MacDonald is the projects third director (after Martin Scorsese and Jonathan Demme both bowed out), a telltale troubled-production red flag. Throw in the films 2 1/2-hour length and the Marley familys involvement, and you have a recipe for indulgent hagiography.
Yet Marley is anything but, portraying its subject and his life as both brave and flawed. Its full of larger-than-life interludes, yet some of the films most emotional moments belong to his daughter Cedella, whose disappointment in her father is still evident 31 years after his death.
After showing an African slave port, Marley moves to its subjects Jamaican homeland with stunningly beautiful fly-over shots of the misty rural hill country where he grew up. Born of mixed race to a teenage mother and a white British soldier in his 60s, young Bob grew up as a half-caste who had to earn every meal and was not accepted by either side.
The fire that stoked within Marley would never abate. One of the films most poignant scenes shows two of Marleys white relatives listening to Cornerstone, a song inspired by his white familys rejection of him. Clearly shaken, his half-sister notes the irony that Bob is the Marley the world knows now.
More than three decades past Marleys death, youd think his trail would be pretty cold by now. But Marley presents an amazing and varied cast going all the way back to his mother and first schoolteacher, along with various friends, relatives, lovers, associates and even a few neighbors in the Delaware town where he worked for a few years as a forklift driver at the Chrysler plant. In peoples descriptions as well as period footage of Marley onstage and off, his charisma is apparent.
The music is, of course, amazing. Marley does a fantastic job of putting it in context as an outgrowth of ska, with elements drawn from gospel and American pop and soul. In early photographs of Marleys band the Wailers, they look like the Temptations in their matching suits. Marleys bandmates get plenty of camera time, too, especially Bunny Livingstons soft-shoe demonstration of reggaes signature rhythmic style (perfectly synced to the background music).
Marley touches on its subjects ramblin ways and the unseemly post-death squabbling over his estate without dwelling on either too much, which is honestly just as well, because it ultimately doesnt matter. Even knowing that Marley had 11 kids (confirmed, at least) by seven different women, you just cant resist the man as hes presented here. As one of his girlfriends summarizes, We still couldnt hate him for it.
As youd expect, live-performance scenes are a big part of the film, and Marley has some great ones. The 1978 peace concert in Jamaica, where Marley brought the countrys main political rival leaders onstage and made them clasp hands as his band throbbed away, remains an incredible piece of political as well as musical theater.
Throughout, MacDonalds attention to detail is impressive, cannily interweaving archival footage and photos with modern-day scenes and a killer soundtrack. As the camera traverses the numbered streets of Kingstons Trench Town district, the song playing is Natty Dread, with lyrics counting off those same streets. And the gospel-style demo of No Woman, No Cry with Peter Tosh on piano adroitly shows Marleys debt to American spirituals.
But popular musics debt to him is still far greater. See this film and find out just how much.
Menconi: 919-829-4759 or blogs.newsobserver.com/beat