Bob Marley is one of the most iconic figures in 20th century popular music, a man who is arguably as recognizable and revered today as he was when he succumbed to cancer in 1981. But for someone as famous and influential as Marley -- there's little arguing that he's the best-known musical artist to emerge from the Third World -- the story of his life is not especially well known, especially in the United States, where he's remembered as (a) the most famous reggae artist to come out of Jamaica and (b) that guy who smoked a lot of ganja. (The latter perception isn't helped by the availability of Marley-branded rolling papers.) There's far more to Bob Marley's story than that, and filmmaker Kevin Macdonald attempts to chart the life, times, and art of a celebrated but mysterious figure in Marley, a feature-length documentary about the musician created with the participation of his estate and family. While an authorized portrait of a public figure often means that his or her story has been cleaned up for public consumption, Marley is admirably a warts-and-all portrayal of the man, displaying a fitting reverence for his music and his social conscience but making no excuses for some of the peccadilloes of his personal life.
The earliest known photograph of Bob Marley was taken when he was in his teens, and no performance footage exists of the original lineup of his band the Wailers, so particularly in its early chapters, Marley focuses on interviews with family, friends, and colleagues, who share details from his hardscrabble youth. His father was Norval Marley, a soldier in the British West Indian Regiment who called himself Captain, though records confirm he never held the rank of an officer. Norval Marley's most remarkable achievement seems to have been seducing a large number of young women while stationed in Jamaica and getting them pregnant; one of them was Cedella Malcolm, Bob's mother. By the time Bob was five years old, Norval had turned his back on the family and Cedella was raising him in the slums of St. Ann and later Kingston, where they lived in the notorious Trench Town community. Bob's status as a half-caste child rejected by his paternal family had a tremendous impact on his outlook on the world, and the film includes remarkable interviews with two of his half siblings, who speak eloquently about their own difficult upbringings and the emotions they hear in his early music.
Marley believed that his best bet at escaping the grinding poverty he lived in was through music, and our primary guide to the early stages of his career is Neville Livingston, aka Bunny Wailer, a friend since childhood who helped him form the vocal group the Wailers, one of the most popular acts in Jamaican history. Bunny Wailer is one of the most fascinating characters in the film, and he reveals a wealth of knowledge about the Jamaican music business as well as some great insights into the Wailers' formative days. While he is justifiably proud of his work with the group, once we finally get to see them perform in the incarnation that recorded Catch a Fire, it's clear that while Bunny Wailer had a superb voice and Peter Tosh was a gifted guitarist with powerful charisma, Marley had star power that the two of them lacked. While Bunny feels he was unjustly overlooked as the group rose to stardom, the camera doesn't lie -- it clearly liked Marley in a way it didn't with him or Tosh.
From this point onward, there's enough footage extant of Marley on stage and in interviews that he becomes a presence of his own and not just someone others talk about, and this gives the film a livelier tone. But as important as his music is to this movie (and there's plenty of it), Marley is more concerned with the man than his art, and though Marley's mother, his wife Rita, and his children Ziggy and Cedella all reveal a great love and admiration for him, they don't shy away from discussing his faults. Marley was, like his father, something of a womanizer, and more than one of his girlfriends is interviewed in the documentary; Rita displays an admirable sense of humor about Marley's roving eye, but her disapproval does register, while Cedella does little to disguise her anger towards her dad for his infidelity and disinterest in parenting. And while Marley's interest in Pan-Africanism and anticolonialism appears genuine, his politics also seem somewhat naïve, even after an attempt on his life that led to a brief exile in the United Kingdom; he articulated his messages more clearly in his songs than in interviews (or sometimes his actions).
The tragedy of his death at the age of 36 is inevitable, but director Macdonald doesn't play the film's final act for melodrama, and overall Marley avoids many of the pitfalls of the average pop-music documentary. The feature isn't filled with interviews with celebrities discussing him as an influence; instead, Macdonald puts the focus on the people knew him, and this gives the film an admirable resonance and humility. There are some remarkable archival performances included, but the picture uses them to reinforce aspects of the story rather than as padding. And while Marley is thorough, clocking in at nearly two and a half hours, the picture isn't mired in unnecessary details (in fact, sometimes it would help to know a bit more about the musicians that came and went from the Wailers' lineup after Bunny and Peter left the group). In the end, we're reminded why Bob Marley's art and his humanistic message have remained relevant and powerful more than three decades after his death, but Marley doesn't fuss over the art so much as clear the air about the man who made it; it's not the tribute some might expect, but it's an intelligent and thoughtful portrait that treats Bob Marley with both respect and scrupulous honesty, two qualities he clearly valued in his work.