After Bob Marley collapsed in Central Park the day after the Wailers supported the Commodores at Madison Square Garden, he was diagnosed with terminally late-stage cancer. The last pictures of Marley, shown in Kevin Macdonald’s astonishing documentary – huddling around friends in Germany where he was receiving treatment – show the reggae superstar gaunt, lifeless, underweight and lockless. These pictures, taken months before the singer’s death, contrast the nature of his life and energy to such an extent that they almost appear non-existent. When watching Bob dance, speak and perform it’s hard to believe that he would ever appear the way he did in those photographs. He was a beacon of light, a constant source of electricity. He danced like he was on fire and he looked like he was never going to burn out.
Marley proves itself to be a tribute to this fire within. Kevin Macdonald conveys the musician’s unmatched passion and undying stream of energy magnificently. It was this passion that helped propel him from the impoverished streets of Trench Town as a child to global superstardom before his death. In the film, his journey is told through archive footage, photographs, interviews and some truly incredible performances. With his wife Rita Marley, record producer Chris Blackwell, fellow-Wailers member Bunny Wailer and a range of other hilariously colourful characters that played their part in shaping, inspiring or adding to Marley’s somehow insatiable existence, Macdonald’s documentary becomes entirely and unquestionably complete.
This is a documentary for both first-timers and Marley die-hards. It has the necessary background information, facts and whatever else is needed to honestly and effectively document the man’s life, shaping an idea of who he was and why. His early days as a mixed-race slum-boy in an impoverished Jamaica, a shy young man eager to love and make music, a growing musical phenomenon, a social and political inspiration, a man who never sat down and an artist who changed the world. It also boasts a soundtrack made up of Marley’s earliest, best and most hidden. Songs like his first single, ‘Judge Not’, the classics ‘Concrete Jungle’ and ‘No Woman No Cry’, as well as ‘Selassie is the Chapel’, Bob’s rendition of Elvis Presley’s ‘Crying in the Chapel’.
While Kevin MacDonald’s definitive documentary is partially driven forward by the musician’s legendary performances, it strays far from a concert or performance film. And while it is carried by a narrative put forth by Marley’s closest and dearest, it retains its worth as a valuable and unbiased exploration of a major 20th century figure. Macdonald gives the film substance because he allows Marley’s legacy speak for itself. The film’s insights are far from idolizing. They are honest.
Over two hours long, Marley doesn’t leave anything unexamined. Its subject is exposed, explained and studied on an almost scholarly level. It drives the viewer forward with vigour, colour and music. Bob’s musical journey is taken apart in stages, from his initial recordings under the pseudonym ‘Bobby Martell’, to the climax of the Wailers, performing at Madison Square Garden to a predominantly black audience for the first time. It also delves into Bob as the man, looking at his surprisingly shy nature, his constant involvement with women (which his wife, Rita, talks about in some of the most moving moments in the film), his role as a father, his love of football, his persistently stubborn nature and his refusal to stop creating. And at the end of it all, it becomes pretty difficult to tell you whether Bob was a genius or not, but it’s abundantly safe to say that he lived his life exceptionally.