Marley: Film Review

Marley Berlin Film Still - H 2012
This full-scale biography brings the legendary reggae man to life.

Filmmaker Kevin Macdonald's biography of reggae king Bob Marley brings him to life.

Marley original was reviewed during the Berlin International Film Festival in February.

Stirring up an exhaustive portrait of the legend behind the music, Kevin Macdonald’s Marley is sure to become the definitive documentary on the much-beloved king of reggae. Filled with thrilling concert footage and scores of in-depth interviews with singer-songwriter Bob Marley’s friends, family and fellow Wailers, this all-encompassing, rather classically assembled biography forges a moving depiction of an artist who left the scene way too prematurely. Followers worldwide will make the exodus to see this U.S.-U.K.-Jamaica co-production, though a lengthy 144-minute running time may have them jamming more on TV/DVD than in theaters.

Several years in the making due to various legal disputes and originally slated to be directed by Martin Scorsese, then by Jonathan Demme, Marley marks the only feature-length documentary to have had its many lucrative music rights approved by the performer’s descendants (nine of whom came from seven different mothers, as detailed in one section of the film). With son Ziggy Marley and Island Records founder Chris Blackwell credited as executive producers, this assures fans their fair share of hits, ranging from early Wailers tracks like “Simmer Down” to such bona fide favorites as “Could You Be Loved,” “Three Little Birds” and “Redemption Song.”

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Mixing a wealth of biographical information ranging from the time of Robert Marley’s birth in 1945 to his death from cancer in 1981, Macdonald (State of Play, The Last King of Scotland and the Oscar-winning documentary One Day in September) highlights the man’s importance both as a major 20th century musician and as a figurehead for his fellow countrymen. Tracing his rise from the forestlands of Jamaica's Saint Ann Parish to the ghettos of Trenchtown to the upper-class quarters of Kingston, the film welds personal anecdotes culled from dozens of interviews with archive imagery that gives a feel for the places and times that influenced his music.

Although there are too many such details to recall here, perhaps most intriguing is the prejudice Marley suffered as a child from a mixed racial background, with an elderly white father he never really knew (and who himself sired several children with various women). The unifying message of songs like “One Love” seems at least partially motivated by the hatred he experienced early on, as does his conversion to Rastafarianism at a young age.

VIDEO: 'Marley' Trailer

Showing a love of music from the very beginning, the ambitious and talented Marley eventually teamed with local musicians to form the original Wailers, a few of whose surviving members are interviewed at length throughout the movie. The band’s flamboyant percussionist Bunny Wailer provides some of the more illuminating and hilarious bits -- the Jamaican sense of humor is well on display here -- as does a quick and wacky session with influential producer Lee “Scratch” Perry, responsible for what is undoubtedly the best Wailers record, 1971’s Soul Revolution.

As the life story progresses to cover the group’s breakup, Marley’s climb to fame and fortune and his long-term, very nonmonogamous relationship with wife and backup singer Rita, the film tends to get bogged down in an overabundance of information, some of which may only interest followers of Jamaican music, politics and the Rastafarian movement.

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But eventually it leads toward a lengthy and stirring finale showcasing some of the artist’s greatest live performances, the last ones given when he was terminally ill. Most notable are two late concerts in Kingston, the first of which he was shot at in a botched assassination attempt (“as professional as Jamaicans get,” cracks one band member) by one of the country’s rival political parties/street gangs. The fact that Marley persisted in appearing onstage reveals to what extent he was invested in unifying his violent homeland, and the closing credits reveal how his message continues to resonate today.

Production values are top notch, while the music speaks for itself.

Production companies: Shangri-La Entertainment, Tuff Gong Pictures, in association with Cowboy Films
Director: Kevin Macdonald
Producers: Steve Bing, Charles Steel
Executive producers: Ziggy Marley, Chris Blackwell
Directors of photography: Alwin Kuchler, Mike Eley
Editor: Dan Glendenning
Rated PG-13, 144 minutes