With Marley, Director Kevin Macdonald adds to his increasing roster of fine documentaries, presenting an energetic and moving portrait of arguably the 20th century’s greatest musical icon. Right from the off this is a film packed full of character, verve and passion. Macdonald clearly embraces this aesthetically, with colours bursting forth from the screen at every opportunity.
From the sun-drenched streets of trenchtown, to the iconic rastafarian stripes and the bright stage dress of the musicians, these notes of Jamaican reggae culture become the language of the film, binding each scene. The reggae beat provides the tempo throughout, as the film hops and skips between each milestone of Bob Marley’s rise to global superstardom.
Macdonald wisely refrains from over-captioning events, instead handing the flow of narrative to those who knew and loved Marley. A formidable cast of talking heads – from friends and bandmates, to family and doctors – paint an intimate reflection, one of a man who touched and awed all of those around him. Some of the most fascinating scenes are those recounting Marley’s residency at Island House, Kingston, a place where anyone was welcome to take counsel with the star. My life is for people, he states in one interview, underlining the extent to which his popularity has become a responsibility, a duty. There is an obvious messianic role hinted at here, and a theme recurring throughout. Early in the film, the roots of the rastafari movement are explored, with particular focus drawn to the deification of Haile Selassie, the Emporer of Ethiopia who became a figure of worship for the burgeoning spiritual movement. By the end of the film, Macdonald has posited Marley as a spiritual successer, creating through his music a spiritual connection.
With Marley’s constant imagery of the singer as a spiritual figurehead, using music to forge unity, it is fitting that the truly memorable moments are those in which this film steps back and allows this music to speak for itself. The moments that move the viewer to the core are often those presenting footage of the many breathtaking performances of Marley’s career. His epic final concert in Kingston, for example, proves one of the centrepieces. As the seemingly infinite crowd roars as one upon Marley’s appearance onstage, it is hard not to be incredibly moved, and incredibly awed at the same time.
Does Marley leave the audience with an idea of Bob Marley: the man, instead of his public image? It is debatable: there is some candid discussion with his family for example, that suggests little separation between the two. At times, it seems even Macdonald becomes overawed at the achievements and beliefs of the man, but it is hard to criticise this. Ultimately, we are of course hearing about a man who appeared to have greater influence than even the politicians of his own country – long before the celebrity-led culture of today was to take hold. On the personal, familial level, Marley was loved almost unwaveringly: Rita Marley remained by his side to the very end, despite his polygamous lifestyle, and she offers some of the most moving tributes to the man.
Those familiar with the story of Bob Marley’s life will anticipate the inevitable, heart-breaking ending, and the film does feel slightly intrusive at this stage – one sequence presents a shockingly gaunt Marley visiting a clinic, a sight entirely at odds with the transcendant figure presented up to this point. Yet, if part of the film’s aim is to depict the humanity of the man behind the icon, then by necessity this must explore the circumstances surrounding his tragically premature death.
When it does finally come time to bring down the curtain on Marley‘s remarkable story, however, Macdonald performs a masterstroke. In a globe-trotting end-credits montage, we see every imaginable demographic, every city, every class and culture engaged in the simple act of song: each performance a joyous celebration of the genius of Bob Marley, each expressing something both his and theirs at once. We are shown his image on shop walls, graffiti’d shanty towns, posters, billboards, murals and more. All evidence, if any more were needed, of the true legacy of music’s all-time greats.
In the screening I attended, almost the entire audience remained rooted to their seats throughout these final credits. Perhaps moved to bask in his legacy, perhaps simply enjoying nothing more than the raw power of a great musician. And that is the film’s – and, really, Bob Marley’s – greatest strength: When we remove the politics, the relationships, the complications and so on, what we are left with is the songs. In a film that so remarkably tells Bob Marley’s story on his own terms; in his own unique musical and philosophical language, there is surely no better tribute to be made.